Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 5, 2015
After more than four decades working in the Evanston Post Office, Michael Gibson, the steady and beloved fixture behind the window at 1929 Central St., has stamped his last letter.
“This is a very emotional time for me,” he admits. “The response from the community has been more than I expected. I kind of just wanted to sneak away.”
No such luck. Patrons had been coming by for weeks to say goodbye and best wishes, and two retirement celebrations – at the main station in the morning, where Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl made a “touching speech,” he said, and at Bluestone restaurant after work – were held on his last official day, Oct. 30.
“The customers have been my family, so to speak,” he says. “I’ve watched their children grow up. I’ve been to their weddings, their funerals, and their church services. It’s been more than just a postal employee-customer relationship.”
Mr. Gibson has been making friends in Evanston his whole life. He was born at the old Community Hospital in 1953, the fourth of six children, and went to Foster School. He was among the first black schoolchildren to be bused, in his case in 4th grade to Walker School.
“People don’t believe this, but that was really the first time I saw white people,” he says. “Everyone got along just fine.” He started a singing group, Little Michael and the Shepherds, which covered songs by the Beatles and the Temptations and performed at school assemblies.
After going to Skiles Middle School and graduating Evanston Township High School in 1971, Mr. Gibson worked in the mailroom at Northwestern. “I was making $300 a month, and someone suggested I apply to the Evanston Post Office, which was paying $4.34 an hour.”
He started there on the night shift, processing mail at the main facility at 1101 Davis St. After seven years, in 1980, he moved to a window. “I loved it there, interacting with everyone. You’d see the same people week in and week out.”
He also met his wife Lynda working at the post office. They were married in 1980 and today have three grown children: Ladell, Michael Jr., and Latrice, plus two grandchildren. Lynda has worked at the Social Security office in Evanston since 1982. “She is the wind in my sails,” he says. “Everything that I am I owe to her.”
In 1986 he moved to the Central Street facility, which he liked even better. “It was a higher level position, as the clerk in charge, and a more intimate setting. I was on a first-name basis with hundreds of people.”
He became an ordained minister and teaches Sunday school and plays the organ at Fischer Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church at 944 Elmwood St. Both positions –ministerial and postal – call on some of the same skills.
“People feel comfortable talking with me,” he says. “Whether it’s divorce, loss of a job, illness, death of a loved one: those are just some of the things that people share with me.”
His religion is an important part of his life. “The only God most people will see is the God in you,” he says. “That means treating everyone with respect. We are all God’s children.”
He adds: “Every day has been a highlight. I never knew what to expect on a given day.” He says there have been “hundreds of honors,” such as letters of commendation.
Still, there was a cloud in the silver lining. In 2006, after more than 30 years on the job, he was accused of misappropriating funds totaling $39 and terminated. “It really hurt,” he says. The postal union filed a grievance, and with the support of Rep. Jan Schakowsky and other public figures, he was reinstated 10 months later with full back pay. He won’t speculate on the Post Office’s motives.
“It was a very humbling experience,” he says, noting that a petition drive “decrying the apparent persecution of Michael Gibson, a long-time dedicated postal service employee, who is also a respected and well-loved member of our community…” garnered almost 900 signatures.
“I’m not embittered. As a matter of fact, I’m kind of glad it happened,” he says. “It provided a very valuable lesson: with all the love and outpouring of support, I realized how much I was appreciated.”
As for retirement, he says, he will continue to work at the church, and he looks forward to more time studying the Bible. He would like to travel, especially to Israel, and to take classes at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
“I’ll still see and stay in touch with people, because that’s important to me. It’s never been about a formal post office-customer relationship. It has always been about having friends new and old and an extended family.”