2018-01-12 / Front Page

He doesn’t just mail it in

Chris Fernald named Great Person of 2017
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer


For his friendly disposition that makes a treat out of a visit that might otherwise be a chore for customers, Kennebunkport Post Office clerk Chris Fernald was chosen by readers of the Kennebunk Post from among 13 nominees as the Great Person award winner for 2017. Sponsored by the newspaper, the Great Person award is designed to recognize those in the Kennebunk Kennebunkport-Arundel community who go above and beyond to make the area a better, more pleasant place to live. (Duke Harrington photo) For his friendly disposition that makes a treat out of a visit that might otherwise be a chore for customers, Kennebunkport Post Office clerk Chris Fernald was chosen by readers of the Kennebunk Post from among 13 nominees as the Great Person award winner for 2017. Sponsored by the newspaper, the Great Person award is designed to recognize those in the Kennebunk Kennebunkport-Arundel community who go above and beyond to make the area a better, more pleasant place to live. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNKPORT — The winner of the Post’s annual Great Person contest does not actually live within the coverage area of the newspaper, but Chris Fernald of Biddeford has a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of Kennebunkport residents every single day.

That’s because, when it comes to providing customer service with a smile, Fernald is not just mailing it in.


Beachwood Avenue resident Penelope Kullaway picks up the day’s mail at the Kennebunkpost Post Office Friday, Jan. 5, from clerk Chris Fernald, chosen by readers of the Kennebunk Post as the Great Person award winner for 2017. (Duke Harrington photo) Beachwood Avenue resident Penelope Kullaway picks up the day’s mail at the Kennebunkpost Post Office Friday, Jan. 5, from clerk Chris Fernald, chosen by readers of the Kennebunk Post as the Great Person award winner for 2017. (Duke Harrington photo) “He’s the best ever,” Beachwood Avenue resident Penelope Kullaway said, as she picked up her mail on Friday. “He makes it fun coming to the post office.”

Fernald, 56, has logged 32 years at the main window of the post office on Temple Street, located in the heart of one of Maine’s most picturesque villages. But, as Fernald tells it, he never could have pictured a career in the postal service. In fact, that he got the job at all was kind of a happy accident.

“My aunt wanted to take the postal exam, and she asked me if I could help her study for it,” he recalled during a Jan. 7 interview. “Well, in order to help her study for it, I had to learn it all. So, once I knew all the information for the exam, I thought, what the heck, I’ll take the exam, too.

“The sad thing was, I got in and she didn’t,” he said. “About a year and a half later she got in and things calmed back down, but it was a little awkward there for a while.”

Born in Kittery, Fernald bounced around a lot as a child, attending 12 schools in 12 years, in and out of Maine, before finally graduating from Thornton Academy. By the time he landed in the postal service, Fernald, still just 23, had worked as a machine mechanic at what is now Corning Inc. in Kennebunk, and as a certified massage therapist. He kept the latter job for a time when he started out part-time at the Kennebunkport Post Office, his first and, to date, only assignment. Kennebunkport was actually third on his list of preferred posts, Fernald says, but that’s only because he listed his options in ascending order of distance from where he happened to live at the time. But it didn’t take long for Fernald to realize that, despite the temporary strain on family relations it caused, he had made a good decision in sitting for the postal exam

“When I worked at the factory, it was kind of a dirty job, and I always came home covered in grease,” Fernald says, “So, it seemed like a dream come true going to the post office. I was like, ‘Wow. It’s so clean. And they’re paying me twice as much money.’ So, I don’t know that I thought much about this [the postal service] as a career at the time. But I’m a creature of habit and I just kept going back every day.’”

Still, Fernald admits, he might not have stuck with the job for as long as he has if he had walked a delivery route for much longer than he did.

“That really is a lot of work, very physical,” he said, giving full credit to his peers who do that work. “What I learned about myself was, the more I delivered out on the street, the less I liked it.”

Fortunately, within six months of his first trek around town, mailbag in tow, Fernald landed a spot at the office counter, where he’s been ever since. And that work has not only suited him, it’s been a boon for local residents, as well.

Lynda Bryan nominated Fernald for the Great Person award because, she said, “He calmly makes the world a better place.”

Although Fernald does not hold a college degree, Bryan, in her nomination, bestowed upon him the title of MOT —Master of Tolerance.

“Through the years, I have seen him politely interacting with angry, impatient, demanding and/or confused customers,” she wrote. “Never raising his voice, never curt, exasperated or hurried, Chris can always be counted on to listen reassuringly and to solve the problem as best as he possibly can.”

But Bryan did not stop there, saying that Fernald also has earned the coveted designation of CGWA — Community Good Will Ambassador.

“He truly deserves that,” she wrote. “Chris chats easily with everyone, be they locals or from away. He pays attention to the talk of the day customers share with him and responds with understanding, sympathy, humor — whatever is needed. When visitors come in to the post office asking addresses, directions to places of interest, restaurants or beaches, he patiently gives answers and the warm smile. Chris makes a bright difference in our terrific little community, and, in doing so, he makes the world a better place.”

American life has changed a lot in the time Fernald has walked among us. Once upon a time, the post office was the center of social life in any community, where people met, exchanged pleasantries, and kept up with the news of each other’s lives. The daily mail was the one service of the federal government that touched the lives of every American, and, in so doing, bound them all, from native to fresh-faced immigrant, within the fabric of a new society. And in Kennebunkport, at least, that same sense of community survives, thanks in no small part, Bryan says, to the simple acts of human kindness Fernald shares every single day, with every single customer.

In Kennebunkport, no one ever dreads a trip to the post office. Here, the phrase, “going postal,” has no meaning. There are no disgruntled public servants robotically going about their assigned tasks, enforcing with an almost vengeful glee the bureaucratic rules of a faceless, industrial complex. Here, there is Fernald, and a trip to his window — the kind of daily errand that in another place might become the kind of soul-crushing chore that can easily ruin an entire day — is instead a pleasant experience that has one is still smiling hours later, when it comes time to gather with the family around the dinner table.

“I just wanted him to know and realize that so many people feel the same way that I do — that he is just a fantastic, fantastic, wonderful person, and he makes such a difference in our town,” Bryan said, in a follow-up interview to her nomination, when asked why she singled out Fernald for recognition. “I just wanted him to know that everyone thinks so much of him and appreciates him.”

One of Fernald’s tasks, of course, is to fill the post office boxes, and, as such, he is familiar with the Kennebunk Post, often pausing in his duties to glance at a front page photo, pursue the headlines, and maybe even skim the first few paragraphs of a story. So, he is familiar with the paper’s annual Great Person contest. Still, he had no idea he had been nominated this year until a friend appeared at his window one recent morning and, as Fernald recalls, “began grinning like a Cheshire cat.”

Ordinarily a private person when not at his very public job, Fernald admits to now being a little nonplussed by the sudden notoriety.

“It’s a little embarrassing,” he says. “Well, not embarrassing. That’s not the right word. But being singled out. I mean, I was the kind of kid who never liked birthday parties, because it made me the center of attention. So, for me, I cringed a little bit. But Lynda [Bryan] is a wonderful lady. It’s a very nice gesture. And it’s a wonderful honor to have people feel strongly enough to vote for me. In one way it kind of boggles my mind. But I guess, in a lot of ways, I’m the one person who knows everybody in town.”

In characteristic fashion, Fernald says his work, and the award, is not about him at all. It’s about the customer, and the residents of the Kennebunkport community.

“I’ve had a lot of people shocked,” he says. “Tourists come up to the window and they’re just, like, stunned that I smile and talk to them and ask them how they’re doing. They’ve said, ‘You know, in my town, it’s a traumatic experience going to the post office.’

“And I hate hearing that. I really do,” Fernald says. “But even here in Maine, I’ve heard horror stories from other offices, of people getting ulcers just from going to work. But, luckily, we have a great crew here, and always have. Everyone gets along very well and it’s a very harmonious place.”

And so, Fernald focuses on the faces he serves every day.

“Everybody has a story,” he says. “Everybody has something interesting about them. I like coaxing a smile out of somebody who might come to the window not necessarily smiling. And sure, I’m like anyone else, there are days it’s all I can do to face going in to work and opening the window — not because of anyone here, but just because of whatever might be going on in my own life. But I get here, and the windows opens, and the people start coming in, and they sort of feed me, somehow. I don’t know exactly how, but I can start smiling, and then I can start laughing and joking.”

One reason Fernald suspects he drew votes this year is because he has let it slip that he may be retiring soon. As of June, he was fully vested in his retirement account and could go at any time with a full pension. That wouldn’t be enough to live on, he knows, but he’s begun to mull the idea of new challenges, or something different — not because he’s at all dissatisfied in his work, or his customers, but just to have the experience of freshness a second late-life career brings.

“I feel like I need to do something different before it’s too late to make that kind of a leap,” he said.

One thing the people who Fernald coaxes into smiling every day may not know about him is that he is an aspiring artist. In the basement of the home he shares with his partner, three dogs, two cats, one parrot, and 14 goldfish, Fernald keeps a kiln. It’s remained unused in the 15 years since he obtained it from a friend, who was upgrading to a new unit. He also has 500 pounds of clay scored for free a couple of years ago off Craigslist, similarly untouched.

“I need something a little challenging, and I think I’d like to do sculpture, if I had the time,” Fernald says. “And, here’s an odd one, I’d like to make lamps. I collect all these little weird electrical pieces. I’ve got crates and crates of these parts all downstairs. I haven’t actually made a lamp yet, but I keep collecting pieces, because someday I’m going to. So, I guess that’s what I’m going to be doing when I retire, apart from another part-time job.”

And so, it’s possible that even if and when Fernald retires from the post office, he will not disappear from local life completely. Having spent decades serving the shop owners of Dock Square, he would not be a complete cipher, he knows, if he showed up at the door with a sample lamp and a consignment contract.

So, locals could well see Fernald’s name on a card in the window of a downtown shop, even after his face stops being a daily feature in their lives. Until then, Fernald says he is “very appreciative” of the feedback given via the Great Person award, which drives home, in its own way, that his three decades at the post office window in Kennebunkport was well spent.

“I love the people here,” Fernald said. “I really like my customers. They are a lot of fun. When I retire, I don’t think I’ll miss the job, just because I’ve been doing it for so long, but I will miss the people.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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