Retiring UPS driver is a smiling face for many in Norwich

Norwich — Richie Black unbuckles his seat belt and opens the door to his truck's cardboard-scented posterior. Boxes and packages are placed on three levels on each side of the truck, and labeled in sections from 1,000 to 4,000.

His delivery information acquisition device, or DIAD, tells him where in the truck each box is supposed to be located. It's much more efficient than the paper system he used when he started.

Black steps out the passenger side of the truck, UPS-branded socks peeking out from the polishable, hard-soled, laced shoes his employer requires.

He walks into Eastern CT Foot Specialists and gives the receptionist some packages; she gives him some candy.

"This is why we're his favorite stop," the receptionist says.

Black's rule is to never refuse food, because then he may stop getting offered food. That's good, because his interest in talking to people — whether it's swapping hiking stories or hearing about someone's fight with cancer — can keep him from taking his official lunch break.

As he continues his route — to Norwich Ophthalmology Group, to Norwichtown Veterinary Hospital, to Dressbarn — people smile when they see him.

"It's a phenomena. Why do you treat me so nice?" he asks. "I'm just bringing you a box."

This week, Black is retiring after 35 years as a UPS driver, most of them in Norwich. Considering that each day he stops at about 80 businesses and 70 to 80 residences, a lot of people will miss his smiling, familiar face.

'He cares about our family'

Black heads out of the UPS facility in Bozrah at 9 each morning and usually ends his day about 7 p.m.

By 8:45 every morning, the facility is buzzing with brown-clad drivers, who do some supervisor-led stretches and listen to safety tips before heading out. And then it's not long before the building is nearly desolate.

Black's manager, Rick Orton, explained that the 65 to 85 drivers leaving the Bozrah location daily cover about a third of the land in the state.

Hanging from the facility ceiling is a banner recognizing Black as a "Circle of Honor" member, meaning he has gone at least 25 years without an accident. He now has a 30-year patch on his arm.

Black has kept people safe not only through his driving, but also through his observations, like giving police a description of a car fleeing a crime. Police were once looking for a man whom Black saw hiding in a dumpster. Then there was the time he noticed a shed on fire and grabbed a hose from next door.

The job can get stressful enough without criminal activity or fires, especially in bad weather and especially at Christmastime.

His eldest daughter, Kaitlin Black, recalled thinking about him in the rain on Wednesday.

"There's no way I'd want to be out there, but he's out there delivering packages because he cares about our family and he cares about doing a good job."

Each driver gets a seasonally hired helper around the holidays, a topic of gossip among drivers. They might complain about a helper who is too slow getting out of his seat, or who doesn't carry boxes well.

Black says it was tough for him missing his kids' recitals and track meets.

Kaitlin, 29, recalls that he couldn't come to Christmas events at school because he'd be delivering packages until 8 or 9 p.m. But she remembers running in a race at Norwich Free Academy, hearing "Go Katie!" and seeing her dad. He had timed his route to be at NFA for that moment, and that meant a lot to her.

She is also grateful to UPS for giving her a college scholarship.

"He treats us like gold here"

Black grew up in Waterford and had delivery experience from a young age, working as a paperboy for The Day.

He wanted to be a pilot, and he logged 300 hours in flight school in Kansas City. But as he found himself running out of time and money, he returned to Connecticut.

Black started working at UPS at 22, after repeatedly being told the company wasn't taking applications. He worked part-time for three-and-a-half years before becoming a driver on the Naval Submarine Base in Groton for a few years.

He's been driving in Norwich since 1990, except for one year on a route in Salem. Black and his wife have been living in Norwich since 1984, when they bought a house next to their church, Norwich Alliance.

"They're going to work you hard no matter where you go, so you might as well be where you're comfortable," he said, "and I see my family during the day."

Blacks says he lives by the Bible verse Colossians 3:23-24: "Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."

As Black went about his work last week, a lot of people express how much they'll miss him.

"Don't worry, I'll break a tooth or something," Black jokes in the office of Norwich Periodontal Associates. "I'll be back here."

"He treats us like gold here," says Catt Pelletier, medical assistant in another office.

The only ones that don't seem to like Black are the dogs. It seems the stereotype of canines disliking mailmen is true for UPS drivers.

On Black's birthday one year, his kids were getting their braces adjusted in the office of Dr. Jeremiah Lowney, and they were giddy because it was their father's birthday. When Black dropped by later with packages, Lowney had a cake for him.

"Stuff like that will make you break down and cry," Black said.

e.moser@theday.com

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