Butch Alvarez can’t begin to calculate the number of people he’s met or the mileage he’s clocked during his 35 years as a mail carrier in Sonoma.
He’s logged an average 7 miles per day walking the Sonoma Plaza route delivering and collecting mail, making visits to the historic City Hall and the shops, businesses and residences in the area.
On Friday, he retired after 40 years with the U.S. Postal Service, the first five of them spent in Glendora in his native Southern California.
“It’s been a journey, a great journey. I’ve been blessed,” said Alvarez, 63, a fixture around town in his uniform cap, rolled up shirtsleeves and short pants no matter the season.
Alvarez transferred to Sonoma to escape the smog that sometimes canceled outdoor recesses at neighborhood schools along his postal route. As a newcomer to Sonoma, working as a mail carrier was an ideal way to explore the community and meet the locals.
“Sonoma’s really grown, but it’s still a small town,” he said.
It’s more ethnically diverse than when Alvarez arrived in 1982, to discover not everyone was enthusiastic about a new mail carrier of Hispanic and Native American descent.
“Sometimes I’d try to be a little extra nice,” he said. “There were some people who would take out their outgoing mail so I wouldn’t pick it up.”
Raised with a strong work ethic, and long ago advised by his parents “to be a gentleman, to be cordial,” Alvarez pushed through those early episodes of discrimination without incident.
After a few years as an auxiliary carrier without his own route, Alvarez applied for a vacancy serving the Sonoma Plaza. He could have opted for a rural route with less public contact, but that held little appeal.
“I’m a people person,” he said. “I’m drawn to people and their stories.” He’s shared more than a few stories, too, like being nicknamed for a racehorse, Brother Butch. Alvarez’s father, José Luis Alvarez Sr., earned some extra cash the day his namesake son was born, when the longshot Brother Butch finished first.
Alvarez worked the Sonoma Plaza route for 32 years, until making his final delivery last week. His last stop, at the St. Francis Solano Church rectory, was bittersweet.
Diane Klauber, an administrative secretary at the church, said people will miss Alvarez’s “friendly, engaging personality.” She’s greeted him at the rectory weekday afternoons for nearly 13 years.
“Butch comes in and brightens up the day. He’s just an amazing mail carrier,” she said. “He knows all the kids (at the adjacent church school) and they all know him.”
Alvarez has walked his 570-stop route through heat waves, windstorms and pounding rain, and during a flood when he had to lift his mail cart above swirling waters to make deliveries.
“When you’re walking, you still have to go the distance,” he said.
Only October’s firestorms prevented him from doing his job; he had a reassignment for three days before mail service could resume, something he said he’ll never forget.
Decades of change
He’s seen considerable change in Sonoma since starting his job back when Ronald Reagan was president and the San Francisco 49ers were Super Bowl champions.
The population was older, with fewer young families, something he noticed when he’d visit the Sonoma Plaza playground with his daughter, Genevieve, now 36. “I was one of the few dads at the swings pushing my daughter. There weren’t as many families.”
There are more than double the mail routes today, too, and many more packages to deliver and track than ever, courtesy of online shopping sites like Amazon.
Brushes with fame
Working as a mail carrier in a tourist town has had its quirks. He’s posed for countless photos with travelers from around the world; and met celebrities Robin Williams, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, Danny Glover, Rob Schneider and Robin Leach, host of television’s “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
His good looks and athletic build caught the attention of a Plaza shop owner, who invited him to model for print ads for her high-end men’s clothing store. He also appeared in a TV commercial for Pepsi in 1987.
More exciting yet was when Alvarez spotted Sonoma’s then-police chief red-faced and nearly out of breath chasing a young robbery suspect who was fleeing on rollerblades. Alvarez pursued the suspect until officers could take over and finally catch him. Alvarez has a citation of thanks commemorating the incident.
Another time, he responded when he heard a toddler crying for help. The girl had climbed out an open window and was standing on a water pipe about 8 feet above the ground.
Alvarez “shimmied myself up” and rescued the girl.
Most days have been more routine like exchanging brief conversations, knowing that for some elderly residents “I might be the only person they see all day.”
Alvarez will miss those encounters. He is grateful for his long career and the countless people he’s met, and the many friends he’s made since arriving in Sonoma.
“There’s a lot of room for them in my heart,” he said.
Contact Towns Correspondent Dianne Reber Hart at firstname.lastname@example.org