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This story first appeared in the local postal union newspaper in December, 1985. I was the editor of the paper, and a huge fan of John Prine. Knowing he had once been a mailman, I got the bright idea of presenting him with an honorary lifetime membership in the union when he was in town for a show. What better way to meet one of my songwriting heroes. I called his manager, Al Bunetta, who said he’d check with John. A few days later Bunetta called back, said John would be happy to accept the honor and told me tickets for the concert would be left at the box office to pick up before the show. My wife and two children, along with the local union president, Jerry Rudolph, attended the show with me and we all went backstage afterwards to meet John and give him a certificate making him an honorary lifetime member of the local postal union.

Here’s the story I came away with.


by Dan Sullivan

He’s many years and miles away from the mail route he once walked in west suburban Chicago, but John Prine hasn’t forgotten the days when he earned his living with a sack of mail hanging from his shoulder instead of a guitar.

“It was the first job I had after high school,” he says. “I couldn’t go to college ‘cause my grades were so bad.”

Which just goes to show that teachers aren’t always the best judge of talent.

In 1971, Kris Kristofferson heard John Prine singing after hours in a Chicago folk club, hauled him off to New York, and before you could say Bob Dylan twice, John Prine had a recording contract with Atlantic Records.

In 1972 his critically acclaimed first album came out, and Prine made it into the pages of Time magazine, where he was lauded as “one of the nation’s most striking new folk talents” for his highly original songs. His days as a mailman were over.

“I used to run into people on the road at first, when I was traveling around. They’d go, ‘Well, I’m from so and so in Kansas,’ and I’d go - wham! - and give them their zip code,” he laughs.

Notable for their simple, hummable melodies and sterling silver lyrics, Prine’s songs have always been closer to the Twilight Zone than the Top Ten;

A child-actor is put on tour to save a movie dying at the box office. A drug-addicted Vietnam vet “trades the house he bought on the G.I. Bill for a flag-draped casket on a local heroes hill.” A pregnant teenager is sent to a home for unwed mothers, “kept undercover like some bad dream.” A patriot arrives at the Pearly Gates, only to find that his flag decal won’t get him into Heaven.

Backstage at the State Theatre, after a recent concert in Kalamazoo, the friendly, unassuming singer accepted an honorary lifetime membership in the local postal union and talked about his days at the post office.

“My father was a tool and die maker when he first came up from Kentucky to Chicago. He was in the steelworkers union. He was a big union man, president of his local for about 12 years. He’d always take me to union meetings and stuff, so when I got to the post office the first thing I did was join the union because I knew what the power of the union was.”

That was around 1964. Prine says the pay was good, remembering the starting wage was $2.18 an hour. And there was plenty of work. So he stuck around for 7 years, carrying mail by day and by night working on a hobby he’d had since the age of 14 - writing songs.

“I was there when they didn’t pay subs overtime. They’d work me 12 hours a day, six days a week. Then a year later, when they made me a regular, that’s when they passed the law saying they couldn’t work subs without paying them time-and-a-half.”

And he laughs again as he recalls his attendance record. “I never had more than 8 hours of sick leave. I’d get 8 hours and take a day off.

“My boss’ name was Sam.” And his eyes twinkle as he remembers the words of an almost forgotten song.

“Hello, Sam / I am / calling in today/ My battery died / in the cold outside /and I won’t be in ’til May.”

Everybody laughs. But it’s getting late. So Local President Jerry Rudolph presents John Prine with a certificate of honorary lifetime membership in the union. By the look on John’s face, it could have been a gold record. He thanks Jerry for the award, grinning broadly as he signs a duplicate for the union’s records.

He’s many years and miles away from the mail route he once walked in west suburban Chicago. The boy from Maywood, Illinois, whose grades weren’t good enough to get him into college, has gone on to write some of the finest songs of the last decade. The word great gets thrown around too loosely in the entertainment business, but it fits John Prine.

The State Theatre is dark and empty as we prepare to leave. “C’mon over and shake John’s hand,” I tell my seven-year old daughter, Kacy. She just lowers her eyes, tucks in her chin and ducks behind her mother standing in the doorway.

“Bye, Kacy,” John Prine says with a grin. “I’ll bet when you get home you won’t be so shy.” [img][/img]

Last edited by Dan Sullivan; 11/04/14 12:25 AM.

Write from your heart, not what you think others want to hear.


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Neat story and I know you and your family had a wonderful evening at the concert in Kalamazoo. The backstage part is the frosting on the cake and I can imagine the stories Kacy will tell when she is older. Thanks for sharing this tidbit of Musical History.

I spent a few hours at our Post Office during the Christmas Holidays as a substitute mail sorter. (Long before automation entered the picture.) Back then, every hour or two, we would have to brave the cold and empty the drive by mail boxes outside. Our reward was free coffee.

Later, when I returned to school and no longer had coffee available... I developed some pretty bad headaches I learned later were caffiene withdrawal symptoms. Fortunately for the music world, I was not into songwriting at that time.

Thanks for sharing your experience.



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Post office is a hard job.

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Originally Posted by Jim Colyer
Post office is a hard job.

Hard, but honest work.

Write from your heart, not what you think others want to hear.


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Great story and newspaper article. Good writing! I enjoyed that.

"Good science comes in peer reviewed journals. Conspiracy theories come in YouTube videos. "
Kevin @ bandcamp: Crows Say Vee-Eh (and Kevin @50/90 2019)
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what a fun story Dan.

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