It is rare that a trip to the post office will make your day. Not so, at Kokomo’s main United States Postal Service outlet on Webster Street. I was taken aback on my first visit there by the engaging, entertaining personality behind the window.
Meet 62-year-old Shelton Quarles, who has dazzled as a window clerk there for the past six years of his 35-year postal career. Customers rave about his charisma and caring spirit. I now know why.
“He makes me laugh every time I go in there,” says Jim Lehman, owner of A Cut Above lawn care. “He’s a helluva guy, a gentle soul.”
“I’m a representative of the Postal Service,” Quarles reacts. “The only person they know that works at the post office is me. So, I want to put a good face on that.”
Dennis Sweeney is the former postmaster of Kokomo, Quarles’ boss for years. “The window clerks best represent the postal image,” he says. “I have worked with many window clerks, but he gets involved with his customers. I have had people come into my office to compliment him about the way he handles people. And people will wait in line just to have him wait on them. He really is one of the very best window clerks I’ve ever had work for me.”
The 1978 Indiana University Bloomington graduate and Omega Psi Phi fraternity member, who for 20 years refereed and coached basketball at the George Washington Carver Community Center, cautions that what we see and think of him now is “the post-Jesus Christ version of me.”
Quarles has reformed. “Before then I’d have probably cussed out half the folks in town,” he admits. “This is the better version of me, as my walk with Jesus Christ has increased.
“I don’t know what it is about me, but people just unload their problems now that they have a comfortability with me,” he continues during our robust and revealing Filling Station conversation. “I hear so many stories.”
That is why he compiles a daily prayer list of whatever issues and problems his customers divulge. “Then at the end of my shift, I say my prayer for everybody. I hear so many testimonies; people go through a lot.”
Most Kokomo African-Americans utilize the downtown post office because it’s closer to their North-End community.
The Kokomo Haworth High graduate often sees former classmates and teachers at his post office window. “I’m a friendly guy. I am a big talker. Everybody has a story,” he tells me. “That’s the joy of living in a small town. Going to reunions isn’t nothing, because being in that position, I always see everybody in town.”
For more than two years, he worked back-to-back shifts at Chrysler and at the post office in different capacities to save enough money to build a new home for his family on the Wildcat Creek Golf Course. At the time Quarleses were the only Black family living there. Now, there are two other African-American homeowners in the upscale community.
The week of Thanksgiving marks the third wedding anniversary for Quarles and his first wife, Stefani. He has an interracial daughter, Jenna, who is a medical student at Hofstra University.
Stefani’s “stronger” Christian conviction bolstered him. “Let me start reading the Bible,” he told himself. “I had never read the Bible all the way through for me. Black pastors preach you the word. White pastors teach you the word.” They both now attend Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church.
His anniversary also kicks off the Christmas shopping season, the busiest for USPS. “Last year was the weirdest Christmas because of COVID. People’s packages were so delayed. Last year was a disaster,” he recalls. “You absolutely want to mail your packages two weeks earlier than you did before the pandemic, just to be safe. We’re not very good right now.”
Quarles also has misgivings about the racial makeup of USPS. His mother worked there for 30 years before him. “I always think the post office should somewhat reflect your racial communities,” he opines. “In the 35 years that I have worked there, you know how many Black people have retired from the post office who started there and worked 30 years or plus since I’ve been there? Just one, my mother. That is an amazing stat.” Quarles says he will be the fourth African-American to retire from this postal facility, which he plans to do soon.
Meanwhile, he worries about the future of USPS. “It would hurt my heart if we ever got to a point in America where there is no post office. Just like newspapers, the post office is not that far behind. We have email and all these ways to send electronic mail across the nation. If we don’t start thinking outside the box, there won’t be any post offices! If it were not for Amazon and all the people ordering things online, we’d be in trouble now.”
Maynard Eaton of Kokomo is an eight-time Emmy Award-winning news reporter and national communications director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).