Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter.
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With the end of the spring semester, the majority of students and faculty members have temporarily left Penn State, meaning campus is a little less crowded. But the same familiar, smiling face that’s occupied the University Park Post Office is there, even after three-plus decades.
Yes, Mike Herr — or “Mike the Mailman,” as he’s been known around Penn State for decades — was found in his normal spot behind the counter the week after spring graduation. No one was around, and only two people stopped by within the hour. For someone who’s credited by thousands of people in the Penn State community for influencing and impacting their lives, this time of year represents a rare retreat from the nonstop traffic that usually envelops Herr.
"I use these couple weeks just to prepare for the fall,” he said. “But I'd much rather have the action, because I like to have the people here. It's more fun."
A week prior, with the end of the semester nearing, “the action” surrounded Herr. On a midday afternoon, nearly 75 people stopped by the post office within an hour, with the line sometimes growing to about a dozen people.
Of course, Herr provided his patented playful banter, including after a female student informed him she also needed to pay for the envelope in which she was sending her letter; Herr originally charged her only for the postage.
“You’re such an honest kid,” Herr told her. “Your mother must have taught you well.”
People continue to converge on Herr’s universe, right across the street from the HUB-Robeson Center.
Within the span of a minute or two, Mike helps out the following three people: a woman in biking shorts who looks like she just finished working out, a professionally dressed woman who looks like she just got out of a board meeting and a young man sporting a backwards hat and sleeveless shirt who would fit right into a downtown rock concert.
Everyone is treated with the same gracious demeanor and patience, and Herr remembers many other people who stop by. He informs one person: “I don’t get email. Send me a card.”
Yes, an actual card. Stamp. Envelope. Put it in a mailbox. With the students who stop into the post office constantly texting and tweeting, it might seem Herr hasn’t kept up with the times, but that’s not the case. He just has his own speed.
Earlier this year, the Lion Ambassadors — a student group of the Penn State Alumni Association — named Herr an honorary member. Two students stopped by the post office, handing Herr a card officially inviting him.
He’ll even get his own jacket, with his name emblazoned on the front. His choice? Not simply Mike, but “Mike the Mailman.” It doesn’t bother Herr that not everyone, even people he’s helped, don’t know his last name. That’s secondary to his main mission of connecting with the Penn State community.
"I was really surprised, it just struck me as a nice gesture,” Herr said. “I think Lion Ambassadors is probably the best group on campus that I know of, because they're always doing something for Penn State, and it's always good stuff."
A hodgepodge of photographs and personal mementos surround Herr, who shares his usual routine of making everyone feel welcomed.
He rings a bell and holds his sign that reads “Nice Sneakers” to a girl waiting in line, he jokes about his remedial wrapping class that begins at 6:03 a.m. and even saves one student some money when he tried to purchase some plastic bubble wrap. Herr asks him to put it back, and gives him some used, soft postal boxes instead. The kid walks away in disbelief, which in some ways has become the typical reaction for people when they encounter Herr.
With Herr, the conversation constantly circles back to family and central Pennsylvania. He was born in Lock Haven, graduated from the Williamsport Area Community College — forerunner to the Pennsylvania College of Technology — and has spent his entire life living in the area.
He studied computer science, though the closest job he found related to his field after graduating was in Rochester, N.Y. He decided to stay close to home, and at the urging of his father, Herr began applying to jobs at the local post office. He began working for the U.S. Postal Service in 1968 and settled into his current position across from the HUB-Robeson Center a decade later. He hasn’t left since.
He and his wife, Katie, another Lock Haven native, have two daughters: Marykate and Michaela. Marykate lives in Ardmore, Pa., and is getting married later this year, while Michaela recently moved back to the area.
He delivers mail for the dancers at THON, wrote a weekly column for StateCollege.com for three years and was a U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) official for a decade. He still plays recreationally and stays plenty active.
He spends his free time biking, kayaking and working outside his home in Linden Hall. He said he does what he calls “landscaping,” though he jokes that a professional landscaper may have a different opinion.
Herr commonly spends his lunch hour biking in the community, and he describes local trails with such exuberance, it’s like he’s describing Penn State from the perspective of someone who just moved here.
"My wife and I, we are very fortunate to live here,” Herr said. “I think this is the best place to be, so anything I can do to give back to this community, I love it here. I wouldn't trade this for any place in the world.
“I think Penn State is the best place. Working here with so many people from different walks of life, all here trying to make it a better place, and that's what I'm trying to do."
It seems like Herr is always telling a story, and a particularly funny subplot involves his wife, whose actual name is Mary Kathleen. Her friends call her Mary, while Mike has always referred to her as Katie.
Like usual, Herr has his own way of doing things.
He still talks lovingly of Katie like they’re two teenagers who just started dating, and he attributes his gregarious and affable personality to his parents. He said his mother always had a sense of humor, and his two daughters have picked that up. Herr’s father was his hero, serving as his best man at his wedding.
His parents also lived through the Great Depression, having to work multiple jobs as Herr and his two sisters grew up. “We learned so much from them,” he said, which has a lot to do with his famous upbeat demeanor.
“It gave me a different sense of, 'Wow, I'm a lucky guy,’” Herr said. “I'm very blessed and very fortunate. How can you not have fun doing what I'm doing? So many people have so many problems, and I've escaped that. Everyone asks how can I be up all the time? I say, 'I'm up because there's nothing to get me down.'"
A lot has been written and said about Herr, especially in the last few years. Local and regional outlets have all sent reporters to Penn State to get a glimpse of the University Park Post Office and the man who keeps everything running.
"CBS Evening News" even visited University Park last year and produced a short video for its “On the Road” series.
"I didn't realize how big it was, because everyone and their brother got a hold of me, or called me, or wrote me,” Herr said. “A couple people sent me things, who I didn't even know who they were. Even today, I go some places and people go, 'I saw that nice video on CBS.' It was surprising the impact it had. … I was just amazed at how many people saw it."
He’s been tabbed the honorary grand marshal of the homecoming parade, and in 2000 when the postmaster informed Herr he’d have to take down all the photos, posters and mementos that envelope his office, Penn State students famously organized a march on Herr’s behalf. The students’ work paid off, as all the knickknacks still adorn the post office.
Among the collection is a list of all the winners of his Cookie of the Month contest, with a red star by the name of Lisa Lovins. She won in November 2013, baking a lemon coconut macaroon that Herr remembered with delicious delight.
“That was the best cookie of the year,” he said. “They were really good.”
For someone so popular, Herr doesn’t have an ego. He’s recognized nearly everywhere he goes on and near the campus, but also elsewhere.
Once, he was standing outside Cheers Restaurant in Boston, and while nearly 15 people stood around, snapping photos, one person approached Herr and asked, “Are you Mike the Mailman?” Later that night, someone yelled, “Mike the Mailman” from across the street.
A similar scene transpired when Herr visited Villanova University, and of course, he was swamped with attention after the CBS Evening News report aired. A graduate from 25 years ago stopped by the post office, as did someone visiting from St. Louis. Both saw Herr on CBS and simply wanted to say hello.
For most people, being highlighted on a national news program would be the high point of their week, if not year. For Herr, it was just another person showing interest.
"To me, I didn't think it was that big a deal, because I do interviews with students all the time,” Herr said.
It might seem funny that Herr equates a national interview on CBS to answering a few questions for a freshman student fulfilling a class assignment, but that’s how he thinks. When Herr says he treats everyone he encounters equally, he means it.
Penn State showed the CBS Evening News report to incoming freshmen last year, and it made an impact, especially for international students, who oftentimes will visit the on-campus post office as opposed to the one downtown.
“I can’t imagine being in another country and doing what they do,” Herr said. “I try to reach out to these kids and they’re always happy to see me.”
He doesn’t talk about retirement, and that might be because there are still a few items on his Penn State wish list. Specifically, Herr mentioned these two wants: to help a campus group set out blue-and-white balloons on the Pattee Mall and to crowd surf in the student section during a football game.
They might seem like simple and somewhat ordinary activities for someone ticking off what they want more than anything else, but they’re also meaningful and memorable.
That makes sense for Herr because that’s his style. The same as it was back in 1978 when he ventured into the University Park Post Office for the first time.
"I'm not a big deal, but everyone thinks I am,” Herr said. “I'm not. I'm just Mike the Mailman."