Earl Gutbrod Has Retired

August 1, 2017

By Sheila Julson 

Bay View post office loses a friendly, familiar face

Newly retired postal clerk Earl Gutbrod said Bay View is the friendliest neighborhood he worked in during his 36 year career with the United States Post Office. —Photo Jennifer Kresse

For the past 15 years, jovial postal clerk Earl Gutbrod served thousands of patrons at the Bay View post office.

Known for his cordiality and humor, Gutbrod put on his United States Postal Service uniform for the last time May 31 and retired after 36 years of service. He has lived in Bay View for the past 30 years.

Now with leisure time aplenty, Gutbrod is pursuing photography, historical studies, canoeing, and, he added with a laugh, procrastinating.

Gutbrod, the oldest of six children, lived in numerous Milwaukee neighborhoods throughout the city during his childhood, attending approximately nine different Catholic parochial schools. After graduating from Riverside High School, he served in the U.S. Army from 1966 through 1969 and was in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969. “I left footprints all over the Central Highlands,” Gutbrod said.

He graduated from UW-Milwaukee in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in business and then worked in sales, but he didn’t enjoy it.

During the early 1980s when an economic recession hit, he, like many others in America’s workforce, had difficulty finding work despite a solid work record and a good work ethic.

“It was scary because I always thought I could get a job,” he said. “So I took the post office exam on a lark, not really thinking about it,” he said. At that time, he was working two jobs, one at a wholesale meat company and another driving a school bus.

His application was accepted and he began working at the main branch on St. Paul Avenue in February 1981.

“I started on a letter sorting machine,” Gutbrod said.

The position challenged him to memorize addresses and the letter carrier to whom they were assigned. He was soon sorting letters at a rate of about one per second, using a 10-key horizontal keyboard. “At first, it was very difficult. I wasn’t a typist, but it’s interesting what needing a job can teach you,” he said.

Today, automated systems sort mail from the time it is dropped into the mailbox until it’s routed to the carrier who delivers it.

He also performed other sorting tasks and saw many examples of how difficult some made it for their letters to reach the intended destination. “During a postage rate increase, somebody taped pennies onto the envelope by the stamp to make up the difference,” Gutbrod laughed.

Gutbrod worked at the downtown branch for about 10 years. From there, he worked as a substitute window clerk at a dozen post offices throughout Milwaukee. He enjoyed exploring different neighborhoods during his lunch breaks, and he was particularly intrigued by the Historic Mitchell Street neighborhood. The area’s stores, such as Goldman’s, the former iconic department store that sold everything from candy raisins to girdles, fascinated him. He remembers taking lots of pictures there.

Gutbrod worked at the USPS branches on 34th and Vliet and on the North Shore before being placed at the Bay View station in 2008. “I worked all over Milwaukee, and in all of the neighborhoods, people, overall, were decent and respectful,” he said. “Bay View is the friendliest neighborhood by far. I got to know a lot of people. It was always great seeing a friendly face in line, and we’d all kid around a bit.”

The drawbacks? “The worst was having to be the messenger of bad news,” Gutbrod said. Sometimes mail was lost or delayed. Customers expecting checks or other important mail would often come to the post office in search of an important letter or check. Despite a desire to help, neither Gutbrod, nor any other postal branch clerk, had any power to recover
delayed or lost mail.

“One week, I had two very unpleasant experiences because parcels got held up in customs in Russia and in Algeria,” Gutbrod recalled. “The one in Russia was especially poignant. A woman
(in Milwaukee) was mailing a wedding dress for a relative to get married in. She sent it express mail. The package made it to Russia and then it sat in customs in Russia and never made the wedding. As much as I wanted to help, sometime people don’t realize limitations. I have absolutely no influence in Russia or Algeria!”

—Photo Earl Gutbrod

The Red Fox is a favorite photo subject of Earl Gutbrod and is Bay View’s unofficial mascot.

The advent of the internet has drastically changed our way of life for better or worse and it has particularly impacted USPS. The agency’s bread and butter had long been mailed bills where a first class stamp was used by the creditor to mail a bill and first class postage was used again by the recipient to mail payment. Now, many people pay bills online. “That revenue is not being replaced,” Gutbrod said. “Somewhere along the line, a young person might ask what’s a stamp? That, by far, has been the biggest change.”

Gutbrod also noted that during his time working for USPS, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) was signed into law under the George W. Bush administration in 2006. Under PAEA, USPS was forced to prefund its future healthcare benefit payments for its retirees for 75 years forward.

The post office is a stand-alone government agency of the executive branch. It is the only federal agency that pays its own way. It has not received taxpayer money for many years. “If you use the corporate model, the board of directors would be Congress. These are the people that make the rules for which the post office must comply, with one big difference — the people on our board of directors get millions of dollars in campaign contributions every year from our competitors,” Gutbrod emphasized. “This has all sorts of crazy effects on some of the rules that Congress writes.”

PAEA and the impact of the internet occurred simultaneously, greatly reducing USPS mail volume. Consequently, Gutbrod said, service was affected due to cost-cutting measures that were instituted. Reducing the number of employees at post office counters was one of those.

Another was setting up a two-tier wage system creating the job category “city carrier assistants” (letter carriers), who begin employment at lower pay rates and who are on contract rather than permanent employees. They get moved around wherever needed and sometimes have to deliver a route with which they are completely unfamiliar. “People came in and said a letter was delivered to the wrong place, but the poor carrier was never even on that route before,” Gutbrod said sympathetically.

Earl Gutbrod served patrons at the Bay View Post Office from 2008 through May 2017. —Photo Jennifer Kresse

Easing into retirement

A history enthusiast, Gutbrod is contemplating studying for a master’s degree in history. He’s particularly intrigued by 19th century America. “We talk about the way things have changed, but nothing compares to the way things changed during that century,” he said. “You had rural to urban lifestyle changes, steam power, changes in the economic structure, the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution.”

Gutbrod has been a hobbyist photographer since he received a camera for his first communion at the former Holy Ghost Catholic Church on Lincoln Avenue at 32nd Street, now San Rafael.

He’s shown his work at Seasons of Life Art Gallery, located at St. Ann Center in St. Francis. His photo of a fox is on permanent display. He uses different types of digital equipment and is playing around with stereo photography, a technique where two pictures are captured simultaneously and then displayed side-by-side to give a three-dimensional effect.

Gutbrod also plans to go canoeing and kayaking. His motorcycle, a Honda 1800 VTX, will see more miles.

He shared a story about his last day on the job. “On my last day of work, I brought in an Eisenhower (silver) dollar. For my very last customer, I said, ‘I’m retiring tomorrow, and this job has been good to me. I’d like to give you this buck for luck. She took it and smiled, and said ‘I’ll never spend it.’”

He said he would like to thank his customers in Bay View. “It’s been good,” he said. “I was treated kindly, with respect, and these people made it all possible.”

To receive additional social security benefits, Gutbrod worked until age 70.

Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and contributor to the Bay View Compass.

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2 Comments on "Earl Gutbrod Has Retired"

  1. Angela (Gutbrod) Buth on Tue, 1st Aug 2017 7:33 pm 

    Thank you for the wonderful story! This is my uncle; it was very exciting to see this, and even learn some new things about him.

  2. Mara Krutke on Mon, 18th Sep 2017 11:25 am 

    Hello I m mara Plechas-krutke. I ve know earl many moons.1970..!so sadden to hear he passed last week to our lord.blessings to the family…

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