Like she did more than 1,300 Saturdays before this Saturday, Betty Childers woke up in the dark and made her way to the tiny Sharon post office. She had to go one block from home to get to work at the place with the letters on it that say; "Sharon, S.C. 29742."
Childers at age 76 opened the doors and started to sort the mail, like she always did. She had about 200 mailboxes inside the post office to fill, including her own. The woman known to townspeople as "Ms. Betty" had mostly bills for the box belonging to her husband and her on this last Saturday she would ever work as this tiny, western York County town's fill-in postmaster.
"Bills come in the mail, but plenty of good things, too," Childers said.
She ought to know. For 25 years Childers was the bullpen pitcher for this post office. She was never the actual postmaster, but the part-time, fill-in postmaster who opened Saturdays to sell the stamps and weigh the packages and sort the mail that goes out. She worked the vacations and sick days of postmasters, came in when weather kept others from arriving on-time, never failed to show up when asked. She carried mail when needed. Childers worked for five postmasters, and was the darling of all five.
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"Betty, no one like her," said current postmaster Janet Dover.
"Dependable, terrific," said former postmaster Juanita Meeks.
The two rural carriers who work Saturdays, Kyle Wyatt and Sherry Hall, sorted mail Saturday morning as day broke, too, as they talked of the one and only "Ms. Betty" Childers. Cassandra Torrence, who has worked at the Sharon post office with Childers for 19 years, talked of "Ms. Betty."
"She always took her work seriously, took great pride in doing it right," said Torrence. "And at the same time people would have babies and bring them to the post office so Ms. Betty could see the baby."
Sharon is about 10 miles southwest of York along S.C. 49. It is, by all accounts, a small place. Dover, the current postmaster, put out in the lobby cookies and coffee as part of a drop-in for Childers' last day.
The Sharon Post Office is only open for walk-in customers for two hours, from 8 to 10 a.m., on Saturdays. At 8:01 a.m. Saturday, the doors swung open and in, past the cookies and coffee and the last-day cake for Ms. Betty, walked a man named Robert Bolin. Like so many in small places, Bolin makes a personal trip to the post office not just to send mail, and get mail, but to see people and catch up on who died, who was born, and what joys and ailments were found in the rest of the town.
A small-town post office is gossip central, sure, but in small places the post office is more. It is a beating, working heart. In Sharon, Childers was that heart's beat.
"Guess this is the last time I will hand you my mail to go out," said Bolin to Betty Childers working the desk.
"It was always good to see you," said Childers.
There was a lull in the action for a few minutes - Sharon only has about 1,200 postal customers, and most get mail delivered to their homes.
But toward the doors came a man from farther out in the country. Childers spied him through the plate-glass window in the front.
"Here comes Mr. Johnson," said Childers. "If it is a Saturday, Mr. Johnson comes to do his mail. I always help him."
And inside on a Saturday morning as he has for almost 20 years came an older gentleman named Neil Johnson, on his way to "town" in the county seat of York.
He had work-hardened hands and fingers rough with callus. Johnson could go to the post office in York or Hickory Grove or Smyrna, or anywhere else. But he chose Sharon for one reason every Saturday of his life: "Because Ms. Betty works here."
Childers the postmaster checked Johnson's outgoing mail and sold Johnson eight stamps and sold him money orders for bills that are paid the old-fashioned way by proud country people - on time, with a money order paid for with cash, sent in the mail. And Childers did more than sell the money orders - she filled them out, too, in lovely handwriting for Mr. Johnson, as she had more than a thousand times.
"I was worried I wouldn't see you, this is my last day," Childers told Johnson. "I am retiring."
"Well I'll be, there is only one Ms. Betty," Johnson said. "You take care. And thank you, as always."
Ms. Betty Childers said what she always said to Johnson and everybody else, this time for the last time: "My pleasure."