Female met mail challenges

First woman letter carrier in Albany retires after making history in 36 years on job

CAROL DeMARE Staff Writer
Section: Capital Region,  Page: B3

Date: Thursday, July 6, 2006

ALBANY - Well into the age when females toiled alongside male counterparts, the city of Albany got its first "woman mailman."

The year was 1970 and Carole W. Van Camp made history. Now, retired after 36 years with the postal service, Van Camp remembered what a challenge it was. She had to prove to the men, to the bosses - and to herself - that she, at 5-foot-2 and 110 pounds, could share the load.

Her Civil Service appointment is dated April 6, 1970. She was 25, a Watervliet resident, and had just lost her job at the Watervliet Arsenal during cutbacks. She had been there nearly four years, working in the gun shop, making mortars and guns for aircraft carriers and tanks.

She heard a radio announcement that the Postal Service was giving an exam for clerk-carrier.

"I thought, `Why not?' " she recalled. "I took the test and a few weeks later I received notice that I had passed and should report for orientation. I was jumping for joy."

But her reception from the personnel office at the main post office, then in the federal court building on Broadway, remains fresh in the mind of the 61-year-old Van Camp.

"What are you doing here?" a woman asked.

"I got a letter to report," Van Camp answered.

"There must be some mistake - this is for male carriers," the woman responded.

Van Camp explained she "refused to leave," adding, "It didn't say on the exam form: For men only, women need not apply."

The men conducting orientation decided to let her stay. "She probably won't stick it out anyway," she remembers one said.

But she stuck it out for about six years, until her shoulder gave out. She then transferred inside.

She was not only Albany's first female letter carrier, but believes she was the first in the Capital Region.

"I don't think Albany would have made such a big to-do if there were others," she said, referring to a newspaper story written about her first day.

Then-U.S. Rep. Samuel S. Stratton wrote her a congratulatory letter. At the bottom, in his handwriting, he jotted, "We need more of you girls!"

Postal officials said at the time that other women had applied but decided against it when they learned it involved carrying heavy bags. However, women worked inside, sorting mail.

She started as a sub, filling in, and eventually got her own route as Letter Carrier 249 (the numbers on her hat, which she still has). She worked out of the Patroon Station in North Albany and delivered to that neighborhood. Her starting pay was $3.06 an hour.

The Albany Institute of History and Art has asked for Van Camp's uniform to display it. At the moment, she isn't ready to part with it.

Today, the streets have their share of women carriers. Albany has about three dozen, Van Camp said. In many communities, mail trucks drive up to homes. Back then, "You took your own car and packed up the first block of the route in your bag," she said.

She handled the heavy lifting. Her empty bag - it was leather - weighed 15 pounds. Loaded, it was 40 to 50 pounds. She also did her share of collections, hoisting bags, up to 70 pounds, into trucks.

The fliers weren't in newspapers at the time; they came in the mail. With fliers, magazines and mail - and at times parcel post packages - delivery to one house could weigh 5 to 7 pounds, she said.

Van Camp, who grew up in the Arbor Hill neighborhood and graduated from Albany High School, recalled how memorable those early times were.

"Men on the street, not the carriers, would say, `Why don't you go back home, what are you doing out here?' " she said.

The bosses were impressed with her work, and through the years Van Camp received numerous commendations.

After North Albany, Van Camp worked throughout the city. She especially remembers the long entrances into homes on North Allen Street, all steps. "We had to carry the bags up those steps, summer and winter."

Once, she was delivering in the red light district on Division Street. As she walked by a house, the red light flashed, a common way to attract customers. "I didn't even know what a red light was," she said.

She never got bit by a dog, even though carriers told her there were a lot of bad ones in North Albany.

When she transferred inside, Van Camp worked as a clerk sorting mail and then as a secretary in the delivery and collection office.

Later, she was an accounting technician and then worked at the counter of the main Karner Road postal facility in Colonie. She retired from there on June 2.

A Latham resident, Van Camp put in 40 years of government service, counting her Watervliet Arsenal work.

"It was time to retire," she said. She has a 14-year-old adopted son and wants to spend time with him.

"All in all, the postal service was a happy career," she said. "I miss it, but I'm not sorry. It's nice to get up in the morning and do whatever you feel like."

Carol DeMare can be reached at 454-5431 or by e-mail at cdemare@timesunion.com.