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The customer always came first

Tiffin’s Karen Ruppert looks back on a career with the postal service
A portion of Karen Ruppert’s postal memorabilia sits on display in the living room of her home. Ruppert retired from the United States Postal Service in February after 42 years.

TIFFIN– When Karen Ruppert closed the customer service window on Dec. 24, 2019, she also closed out a career spanning 42 years with the United States Postal Service.
Ruppert, a resident of rural Tiffin, was the postmaster of the fast-growing community from Feb. 23, 1991, until her official retirement date last month.
A Johnson County native who attended school in Cosgrove and Oxford, she graduated from Clear Creek High School in 1975. While in high school, she had a friend who worked at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City and was in charge of the mailroom and information desk, and hired her to work part time.
“I liked working in the mailroom, the information desk was OK, that’s how you learned the hospital, but delivering the mail up and down the floors and sorting it, I just liked it,” Ruppert said.
After she graduated, and with no fulltime openings available, she moved to the radiology department’s stenography pool transcribing the doctors’ recorded notes into the patients’ medical records.
When an opening came up for a clerk in the Tiffin Post Office in the summer of 1978, Ruppert applied, took the necessary tests, and was hired on July 15. For the first year she split her time between Iowa City and Tiffin before transferring to Iowa City, and building up her seniority.
In November of 1990, Tiffin Postmaster Nadine Ball retired, creating an opening, but Ruppert didn’t jump at it right away.
“I kinda sat on it,” she recalled. “Everyone was telling me I didn’t have a chance.”
But, the night before the application papers were due to be filed, her husband Bill said, “You know, if you don’t do the paperwork, then you really don’t have a shot at it.” The couple worked until nearly dawn to complete the forms. “And people kept telling me I didn’t have a snowball’s chance, so when I had my interview, I was just so calm, cool and collected, because I had no chance.”
Shortly after assuming the duties of Postmaster, a letter arrived addressed to “Grandpa and Grandma Stratton, Tiffin, Iowa.” “There had to be at least three if not four (Strattons),” she said. If such an envelope had a return address, she could narrow it down. If not, “You’d try one, and then another, or the one might say ‘Oh this is for the other’ since they were all related.”
A more challenging delivery arose when an envelope arrived for “Snowball, Tiffin, Iowa.” Without a return address, Ruppert had no clues to work with. Instead of sending it to the Dead Letter Office however, she held onto it. “Then another one came, and it had the physical address, and it was in the trailer court… and it was for a cat.”
Ruppert, like most in the postal service, put her customers first, and said these were but two examples of the extent post office employees go to, that people don’t ordinarily hear about. She and her crew also made it a point that all packages received on Christmas Eve day were delivered before closing the office and going home to their own holiday celebrations.
When Ruppert started as the postmaster, there were 252 P.O. Boxes and only 400-some residents. “I think we’re up to 540 (P.O.) boxes when I left (many more have curbside boxes). In addition, the population has grown to nearly 4,000.
Something else which has grown is Ruppert’s collection of postal memorabilia. Included are representations of her favorite character, “Mr. Zip,” who was created to introduce and remind people to use the then-new Zip Codes, and various postal service-related curios and artwork.
“I always, always enjoyed what I did. I loved dealing with the customers and I liked helping them. I just always liked what I did, working the window, mailing packages, some people don’t like working with Christmas (the volume of packages) but I loved Christmas because everyone was in a good mood.”
A retirement party will be held on Saturday, March 7, at the Grace United Methodist Church, 300 W. Marengo Rd., Tiffin, from 2 to 4 p.m. All are welcome.