Retirement check in the mail for Niantic postmaster

Postmaster Eric Olsen gets a quick kiss from his German wirehaired pointer, Freya, as Olsen finishes up work for the day at the Niantic post office on Friday. Olsen is retiring from the postal service after 44 years.

East Lyme - The fond and funny memories far outnumber the poignant ones for Eric Olsen during his career with the U.S. Postal Service.

But they don't outweigh them.

Olsen retires Tuesday after 44 years of service, including the last 10 as the Niantic postmaster. Last Friday he took a few moments in his overstuffed office to relax and recall.

There was the sad but funny time he was mugged in a parking lot in New London, where he worked for nearly 30 years. And then there was the time he was transferred to Rocky Hill.

"Everybody remembers where they were on 9/11," he said. "You mark the moment. Well, it was my second day on the Rocky Hill job."

Olsen, a robust and bearded man of the Viking image, was supervising a crew of expediters, preparing the mail to go out.

"Not much stops the mail from going out," he said. "That did. That day. No one knew what to do next. How do you follow something like that?"

He followed it up with his own anthrax scare, which was all too common in government offices following the attack on the World Trade Center.

He was working in the Farmington post office when he discovered a lesion on his stomach.

"The boss didn't want to take any chances and sent me to UConn Health Center," he said. "They isolated me for the better part of a day. They took biopsies, had a conference call with the CDC (Center for Disease Controls), and they had a bunch of UConn medical students come have a look."

The bad news was pretty good.

"The doctor gives me the old good news, bad news thing," he laughed. "I didn't have anthrax, but I did have Lyme disease."

Olsen, who lives in East Lyme but will move to Maine in his retirement, said he could not have found a better place to finish up his career.

He said his two sales associates, Vickie Dennis and Susie Austin-Lesick, make the job go smoothly for him.

"This is a busy retail office," he said. "They do a great job and know every facet. When I'm on vacation, it's in their hands. I leave a contact number, but I hardly ever got a call."

Liz Shaw, taking care of some business for St. John's Church, stopped in as Austin-Lesick and Dennis were putting out a retirement cake for customers to share the celebration. Shaw didn't reach for a knife or a napkin. Rather, she took out her camera and had Olsen pose with his pastry.

"He's part of us. He's part of Niantic," she said. I don't know what we'll do without him. Tough shoes to fill."

Sally Frechette was dropping off a package.

"I volunteer with Care and Share, and he always helps me with our mailings and forms," she said. "He's been great whenever we need him. He so jovial. I've never seen him in a bad mood."

Olsen knows the job is no place for a bad mood. He said the job and the people he serves are too important.

"People depend on us," he said. "Everyday I see people looking for something that's important to them. So many things go through the mail, it's part of the lifeblood of the community."

Although he was a victim of it more than once, Olsen wonders how the postal service will continue to downsize. He recalled the public outcry at attempts to close the Old Mystic facility.

"They're so ingrained, especially in small communities, they'll be pretty hard to close," he said.

Olsen is loyal to the post office himself. He still buys stamps and sends his bills out in the mail.

"The Postal Service has been good to me," he said. "I've met so many good people, coworkers and customers. We're duty-bound to do the best job we can, but it's much more rewarding when the people are so nice. That's how it is here. I was going to work until they made me leave. I enjoy it, but they came up with a retirement incentive. ... A lot of people are taking advantage of it."

He's met some not so good people too, such as the two youngsters who tried to rob him one winter morning as he left the New London post office at about 1 a.m. His car was the only one parked on the top level of the garage. He became suspicious when he saw the boys with a baseball bat. Instead of fearing for his safety, he was looking to see if they had smashed the windows in his car. They crossed paths just before he caught sight of them out of the corner of his eye, doubling back and trying to strike him with the bat.

"He hit me in the back, but he fell trying to do it. I fell, the bat fell. So we're both on the ground trying to be the first one to get to the bat.

"Well, I got it and tossed it over the side of the garage," he said. "They tried to get my wallet. I wasn't giving it to them. They were pretty small guys, so I was ready to go to war with them. They got out of there."

When Olsen leaves Niantic, he'll take his 4-month-old German wirehaired pointer, Freya, to Kennebunkport where he and his girlfriend are building a home. Olsen is an avid fly fisherman and hunter. Freya, a bird dog, rests quietly in his office where it's cool and where Olsen can take her out a few times each day.

Tuesday, the tables will turn. Olsen will retire and Freya will go to work, where both can enjoy some time in the wild.

c.potter@theday.com

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