Smiles from the window: Lenoir City postal worker retiring after 30 years
Vicky Newman News Herald
When Katy Miller started working at the Lenoir City Post Office in 1978, a first-class stamp cost $13 cents, female postal clerks were uncommon locally, and electronic automation and computerization were still to come for the agency.

While the job paid about three times what Miller was making at her job at a local IGA grocery store,  it was demanding in its requirements. It is a hands-on job that calls for mental dexterity - an ability to memorize names, numbers and routes - and to multitask, while remaining cordial and friendly with customers.

Even in a small town like Lenoir City, the window clerk greeted and served 200-300 customers on a typical day. In 30 years, that has not changed; if anything, it has only intensified. "It's always crazy here, and Mondays and Fridays can get really crazy," says Miller, who is retiring this week, working her final day at the post office window Friday.

The announcement of her retirement has caused quite a stir around town, from residents who cannot imagine the window without Miller's smiling face.

In the years since she started the window clerk job, she has met thousands of people, and calls most of them her friends. A box to allow customers to write short notes of thanks and well wishing had collected about 200 as late as Monday.

Lenoir City Postmaster Jim Bishop says he is not at all surprised at the response. "Through the years, I have gotten many notes, probably at least 40, from customers commending Katy. At the window you have all kinds of customers - stroke victims, handicapped, hard of hearing, illiterate, people who don't speak English. I've watched her fill out money orders for people and advise them. She has got a knack;  there is very little she doesn't know. She takes time to help people. A lot of people would come in most every day."

Bishop said he served as Service Czar in Tennessee for post offices. "I visited every post office in Tennessee, and I can honestly say of all the window clerks I observed, she was head and shoulders above any person. She is unique." Bishop says Miller possesses an "amazing" memory, and called virtually all her customers by name after meeting them. 

Miller says she developed and refined an ability to remember names by making a game of memorization. She played the game with her sons, Matthew and Bradley, encouraging them to remember names of waitresses in restaurants. Memorization skills were vital when Miller was hired by postmaster George Bowman and trained by Lloyd Powers, and those skills remain vital today, Miller says. Because she was the first woman hired as postal clerk in many years, she was determined to learn the job thoroughly, perform tasks well and excel. 

At a time when "going postal" became a term coined to mean loss of temper or a disgruntled attitude, Miller managed to keep positive, her face reflecting the antithesis of any negative stereotype.

She made such an impact in her position that she was solicited to train window clerks herself. She has trained hundreds, both locally, in Lenoir City, and in Knoxville. "You've got to like this window, or you are not going to do a good job. I like people, so I do like it," she says. "These people are my family. They tell me their problems and I am a good listener. I try to be comforting, and I have tried to be friendly, personable and professional. It is so busy. My main concern is I want all of my customers to feel like the most important people I had to deal with that day. The person in front of me is going to get my undivided attention."

That philosophy, of service with a smile, was something Miller says she learned early in life from parents, Delsa Simpson of Loudon and the late Clifford Simpson. "My dad was a contractor, and although he never made a lot of money, his customers were always satisfied," Miller says. "And my mother is phenomenal. A lot of people will say to me they have never met a nicer person than me - I tell them, then they have never met my mother..."

The Simpsons instilled a strong work ethic in all of their children. Miller says each has displayed "workaholic" tendencies in respective professions, and an attitude of service.

Miller concedes it can be challenging to give personalized service to each customer, yet keep the line moving in a timely manner, but it is possible, with patience, to do so. Success at the job  requires leaving personal problems at home, and leaving work problems at work, she says. "You can't feel sorry for yourself. You have to deal with your problems. My problems stay at the back door when I walk inside. For eight hours, I drop them all ... as I come in the door and drop this on the way out."

She looks forward to spending some time pursuing hobbies of sewing, quilting and reading, and caring for her grandchild.  "It has been my pleasure doing this 30 years," she says. "I want to relax a couple of years, then probably I will get back in the work force. "

Post office co-workers will give Miller a retirement party the first week in November, and wish her well. But, through Friday, she will continue as she has for three decades. She just hopes the smile will not be too tearful. "Will I cry? I don't know. I have mixed feelings... I am tickled I can retire, and while I do worry about the post office, the girls are good and I am comfortable they can do a good job ..."