When Nancy Fryrear first started working at the Tampa post office, she pulled a night shift, catching a few hours sleep before heading to her other full time day job at a local bank.
That was 20-plus years ago. Today, as the U.S. Postal Service celebrates 232 years of existence, the Wesley Chapel woman is already into her third year as Tampa's postmaster - only the second woman among the 41 people who have held that job.
From her office high above the parking lot of Tampa's post office on Spruce Street, Fryrear supervises 27 stations and branches and more than 1,200 people. She watches workers going into the post office and recalls when she walked their path.
Fryrear glances around her spacious office, carefully organized with elegant furniture and plants, a regal lion gazing from a print over her desk and family pictures behind her.
"Oh some call this the ivory tower," she chuckles, then turns serious. "But I look down there. I watch people come and go and I see myself. "
Fryrear was barely 18 when she left home in Norwalk, Conn., arriving in Tampa hoping to attend the University of South Florida, eyeing a degree in finance. Things didn't go as planned and Fryrear found work in a Tampa bank.
Eventually, she married a Tampa police officer named Ed Fryrear, who retired from the force as a major. Together 29 years, Fryrear and her husband have a son named Mike, 25, the assistant baseball coach at Flagler College.
She says her husband has been her biggest supporter.
"I would not be here if it weren't for him," she said.
It was he who told her about the opening at the Spruce Street post office. Even though she had a full-time job, she couldn't resist.
For three months she worked two jobs - bank and post office. The drive to be independent, coupled with a strong work ethic, kept her going.
"I would work 40 hours a week at the bank; get off work each day and be here at the post office at 6 p.m. and work until 4 a.m., catch a couple hours sleep and go back to the bank," Fryrear says.
She gestures toward the parking lot: "I remember sitting in that parking lot and catching a nap between jobs before I went in to work. It was tough but I wanted to make sure I could take care of myself."
Then Fryrear decided to make the post office her career. While she made strides, she also thought a lot about the college degree she never got.
She had tried Hillsborough Community College, but felt lost and needed guidance with procedures and classes. She took courses, but she didn't finish a degree. She admits that school, even from her youth, was hard for her.
Then in 2000, she noticed an announcement from Phoenix University's West Florida campus in Tampa. She called - and found exactly what she needed.
"They stayed right on top of things, they had a plan and I love structure," Fryrear says.
The university caters to those who are full-time employees and need to fit classes around a work schedule. Fryrear's first two classes paved the way for her success.
She says one taught her how to be a student, how to do research and gave a basic outline of college work. The other taught critical thinking skills. These and her other classes would fit in at night or when she could arrange them around her work day and she could use hands-on experience of her job as credits.
Maurice Harvey, Phoenix University dean and professor, recalls Fryrear.
"Nancy only needed minor direction," he said. "She's a very dynamic, open-minded and energetic person. She's very hands-on and she's a go-getter. Nancy was the kind of student who would manage something on her own, then show others how to do it."
Fryrear laughs and tells the story of one classmate whom she partnered with for many projects as they worked on their business management degrees for a bit over three years.
"She was from UPS and here I am from the postal service. We did several projects with Blue vs. Brown."
Harvey says there also was a FedX employee in the class - all three women about the same age and about the same career level.
"They added so much because it allowed us to compare and contrast different things. When they graduated all three of them got advancements and moved on," says Harvey.
Fryrear received her long- awaited bachelor's degree in 2004 and in June 2005, she was named postmaster.
"Getting that degree was such a good feeling," says Fryrear. One of four siblings from a blue collar working family in Connecticut, Fryrear is the only one with a college degree.
At work, Fryrear says she tries to pay attention to the words of her staff.
"She welcomes our input," said Tim Dose, manager of customer service operations and a 33-year staff member. "We know she's the boss but she's approachable and we always know we can make suggestions. We have solid communication and teamwork here."
Fryear admits the job comes with plenty of responsibility and stress. She manages the stress by exercising and running. She handles the responsibilities by being highly organized and not losing sight of what is important.
"I make sure I'm a role model as a female," she says.
She also makes sure she is visible to those she supervises, stepping onto the floor to help workers in crunch times such as during the busy holiday season. It's all part of being hands-on - Fryrear's trademark.
Harvey confirms this.
"Last Christmas I was in the post office and I looked over and Nancy was right there on the floor with the other workers, I said, 'Nancy, is that you?' "