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Mail won't be same without him

Bill Ragan remembers when he was sent to the Land O'Lakes post office 31 years ago.

At the time, he was a mid-level manager in a hustling and bustling Tampa post office. By comparison, the Land O'Lakes operation involved two routes and about 1,000 pieces of mail a day. To put it mildly, things were pretty darn slow.

"I thought I had been sold down the river," Ragan said. "I couldn't wait to move on.

"Now you couldn't blow me out of here with a stick of dynamite, except for retiring."

Yes, that's right: Ragan, 63, has decided to retire after 41 years with the U.S. Postal Service, three decades of which were spent in Land O'Lakes. Friday will be his last day.

Ragan said while it took a few years for the area's charm to grow on him, he couldn't be more torn about leaving. Though he lives in Tampa, he also considered Land O'Lakes home and his employees extended family. Three generations of families have worked for him.

But "I just want to make sure I have enough time to enjoy my retirement," said Ragan, whose hobbies include photography and swimming.

During the years, Ragan has been involved with the Central Pasco Chamber of Commerce and the United Way. He remembers when the Flapjack Festival, the community's signature event, was started, and he had the honor of being its grand marshal in 1999.

His office has been a favorite for school field trips. One photograph shows a much younger Ragan posing with a class of elementary students in front of the post office. Those kids are all grown up now, he said, and probably have kids of their own.

When he first arrived, the post office was in the spot that is now Frank's Cafe, in a plaza on Land O'Lakes Boulevard. It moved elsewhere before landing in its current location, 5230 Land O'Lakes Blvd.

Through the moves, the operation continued to grow, with Ragan's office now handling 27 routes and 14,300 pieces of mail a day.

He said he hopes the area continues to develop, but in a way that preserves its natural beauty.

"Land O'Lakes is kind of in a transition right now," he said.

Ragan said he hopes that county officials can control the growth and don't let it run amok like it has in west Pasco.

He credited the National Enquirer with helping shape one of his main postal management philosophies: Everyone's mail is important.

He was still new to Land O'Lakes when he received a call from an upset customer, a woman in her 80s named Ms. Placie, he said. Her National Enquirer had not yet arrived.

He admitted that his first thought was, "Big deal." But then he realized that while he didn't personally consider the tabloid's arrival a major event, she did. And other people had just as strong feelings for their mail, whatever it was.

"It was a lesson I learned early on in my postal career . . . and it stuck with me all these years," he said.

Ragan also considered supporting his employees to be one of the postmaster's highest responsibilities.

It's a trait that has inspired loyalty among his troops, who are sad to see him go. He has watched their kids grow and have kids of their own. Many of them have never worked for anyone else.

"It's a sad day, him leaving us," said Lisa Durlak, a rural letter carrier who has worked for Ragan for 11 years. "It's not going to be the same."

Linda Askins, who works on the customer service desk, called Ragan the best postmaster she ever worked for.

"He can be gruff, but he will come out and defend us any time we're having a problem with a customer," she said.

She was working in St. Petersburg and living in Lutz when she met Ragan. She had long wanted to transfer to the closer office, but her request had not been approved. On that day, more than a decade ago, she was speaking about postal work at a nearby school and ran out of coloring books. She went to the Land O'Lakes office to ask for more and started talking with Ragan.

When she went to work the next day, Ragan had managed to get her transfer request approved.

"If I wasn't far behind him, I'd be really sad," Askins said of Ragan's retirement.

His employees said they respect him for his straightforward approach and the way he listens to their problems and takes an interest in their families. Of his original five employees, one still works for him, as does her daughter.

"We're going to be lost without him," said Kennis Riggins, a rural letter carrier. "We talked him into staying once, but I'm afraid this is the end of that."

As Ragan looked forward to the new chapter in his life, he can't help but get wistful about the ones behind him.

He can remember when the post office had to keep an inventory of stamps by hand. Every time he sold some, he had to record them in a ledger. The staff used adding machines to add up purchases. In those days, stamps cost 5 cents. Now everything has a bar code and is scanned at the counter by a computer. At the end of the day, the computer spits out a daily tally.

He also had to help his employees adjust to the heightened security measures since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They have had to be more careful about everything, including suspicious packages and how to secure their vehicles off site.

"A terrorist could steal one of the mail jeeps and get to places other people couldn't," he said.

Thankfully, they haven't had any suspicious packages or scares, though there was that mess after someone tried to mail cans of cod liver oil.

For his next adventure, Ragan will trade the Florida sunshine for the snow and ice of Alaska.

He was accepted as a volunteer resident at Chugach State Park, a half-million-acre park just outside Anchorage. He will work at the Eagle River Nature Center for five months, starting May 13.

"At least I know summer's going to be busy, and after that, I'll have to go from there," he said.

Heather Urquides can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4613. Her e-mail address is hurquides@sptimes.com.

Q&A: BILL RAGAN

What will you miss most?

"Serving the community and the interaction with my employees . . . You can't help but be emotionally involved with the employees."

What won't you miss?

"The pressure, though that's probably in any job. There are more and more demands on us."

Have you had a favorite stamp?

"There's been so many it would be really hard. I've had so many favorites." The Southern Florida Wetland series, which comes out in April, is among his favorites, he said. The series features different wetland plants and animals, like flamingos and alligators. Another special stamp was the Greetings from Florida stamp, which shows a sandy beach and palm trees with a rocket launching in one corner.

POSTAL HISTORY: BY THE NUMBERS

When Bill Ragan took over the Land O'Lakes postal operations in 1974, stamps cost 5 cents each. Now they cost 39 cents each.

Then, workers kept a handwritten ledger of stamps they sold. Now it's all done by computer, with bar codes and scanners.

Then, he was responsible for five employees, two routes and about 1,000 pieces of mail per day. Now he oversees 50 employees, 27 routes and about 14,300 pieces of mail a day.

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