By ARIAN SMEDLEY
The Athens Messenger
CHESTER – In a town where not much has changed over the years, Chester residents will say goodbye today to their faithful and dedicated postmaster of 45 years, Opal Eichinger.
“The post office has been wonderful to me and my family,” Eichinger said. “I hate to leave, but I’m 80 1/2 years old, and I need to get out of here,” she said and gave a hearty laugh.
The Chester Post Office is a small two-room office housed in the Masonic Lodge Building in Chester, a township in Meigs County with a population of approximately 2,332 and home to Ohio’s oldest standing Courthouse.
Eichinger, a native from Sand Ridge, started working as a postmaster replacement at the age of 37 on Aug. 7 1961, where her late husband, Henry, was the postmaster. The replacement is responsible for running the post office when the postmaster is not in. When her husband, at age 57, suddenly died from a heart attack in 1967, she found herself in a stressful situation.
“The day after my husband died, I had to come in and open the office, and it seemed like forever until a replacement came,” she said. “On top of that, I had four children at home to take care of. But the community was really there for me. I’m really thankful for that.”
The devastation of losing her husband and becoming the sole breadwinner for her family was a daunting task at first. But with a supportive community and her strong family, she successfully put all four children through college, a task she attributes to her job at the post office.
Her oldest, Dennis, of Reedsville, is the Meigs High School principal; Charles is a retired educator and lives in Pickerington; Donald, of Vincent, teaches at Warren High School; and the youngest, Laura Jean Horton of Westerville, is a parks and recreation director.
One year after the death of her husband, Eichinger became the acting postmaster and then on April 17, 1971, she was promoted to postmaster, a position she’s held ever since.
“I still have customers and business people that were here when my husband worked here,” she said. “They’ve been with me ever since. I’m so thankful for their service. But really, this is my family, too. This whole community is my family. This has been a wonderful experience.”
Nor could she have carried on without the help of her older sister, Laura May Nice. Her sister helped her through the hard time and helped her clean her house once she developed knee problems.
“I want to thank her for being there and listening to my troubles,” she said. “Sometimes she’d head to my house by taking a back road so I wouldn’t see her. But as soon as I got home, I could smell the furniture polish. She’s 83, but she could outwork you or me.”
Mary Gillian was Eichinger’s postmaster replacement for 19 years before retiring in January of this year. Gillian will be providing cake and punch in the post office lobby today in celebration of Eichinger’s last day.
Eichinger’s retirement for many in this community means more than just a new postmaster. Eichinger has become part of the community’s daily routine. Because the Chester Post Office serves only a small fraction of the total population – just those who live in town – they have no mail carriers. Everyone stops in to get their mail from the post office boxes. Words are always exchanged and always on a first-name basis.
Jim Stewart is the owner of Summer Fields, a restaurant located across the street from the post office and a place Eichinger frequented for lunch. He said he will miss her courteousness and helpfulness.
“She’s a source of information for this community,” he said, “and that’s a pretty important thing for us here in Chester.
“One time I tried to count the number of people who actually live in town, and I came up with about 300, and that’s including the cats and the dogs,” he said and laughed.
“She goes out of her way to help. We’ve always been used to her handling us the mail, but now that’s changed. I’ve been here since ’88, and I just got the combination of my box.”
James Ridenour has worked next door to the post office at Ridenour's Gas for several years. He said he will miss her kind heartedness and her willingness to always lend a helping hand.
“Every morning when I walk into the post office, she always asks how I am doing and about the family,” he said. “She is truly one of the most sincere and devoted people in our community. Being from a small town, there have always been three types of communication: telephone, television and Opal. She always knew what was going on, what events were happening, who was getting married or divorced, who was having a baby, or even who was moving to town, before they even moved. She will be greatly missed in the post office.”
Of her many years at the post office, Eichinger said she will miss the people of Chester and her co-workers the most. But now she will have the free time to visit with her seven grandchildren, attend sporting events, crochet, attend services at the Chester United Methodist Church and sleep in.
“At first, I think it’ll be lonesome a little,” she said, as her eyes began to tear up. “I probably will cry. But, I’ve worked hard, and it’s time to go. I hope people will continue to serve this office as they have served me. We need a post office in this town. They took school out a few years ago.
Once you take the post office and church, there’s nothing left. But Sara is doing a good job, and I hope she continues working here.”
Sara Baringer, 19, is the current postmaster replacement and could become the next postmaster.
“The people here come in and talk to you,” Eichinger added. “Just the other day, one of my long-time customers came in and said to me, ‘The year you took over was the year I was born.’ Well, I never thought about it like that.”
She then grabbed a roll of paper towels from the counter, tore off a sheet and wiped away the tears from behind her glasses.