Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Joe Dresch

by Steve Sparks, October 10, 2012

I met with the former Philo Post Master, Joe Dresch, at his Russian River Estates home in the hills a few miles southeast of Ukiah. Although officially retired, Joe has managed to get himself hired by friends to work at their winery in Hopland a few days a week and getting together was not as easy as we thought it would be. Now we had managed that, the wine and cookies flowed.

Joe was born in 1959 in Graceville, Minnesota, at the nearest hospital to the rural town of Beardsley, where parents Vern Dresch and Shirley Schneider lived. He was the fourth of six children, with siblings Karen, John, Jim, then Joe, Jerry, and Kathy, all born within eight years. “My parents were going to keep going until they had a second girl — a sister for Karen. They were determined and would have kept going to ten or more if needs be — it was a big deal to them.”

They grew up in Beardsley in west central Minnesota, just seven miles from the border with South Dakota. “On the day I was born there was a terrible blizzard and then on the way to the hospital the car stalled. We were stuck on the side of the road and a driver of a semi-trailer truck stopped and picked us and got us to the hospital. Because of the weather there had been a few accidents on the roads and they told my mother not to start pushing as they had to deal with the accident cases first. I guess I was put on hold for quite a time — that may explain quite a lot!”

The Dresch family had originally settled in Iowa several generations earlier before moving to Minnesota. Joe’s father was the only child of Werner and Betty Dresch. The Schneiders were from Germany and had come over to the States in the early 1900’s, also moving to the German/Norwegian settlements of Minnesota. “My mother had one brother — Stuart. My parents met and dated while at the local high school. My mother was a farm girl while my father helped out at the local general store. After getting married they soon started the family and we lived and grew up in ‘Tornado Alley’ — during certain times of the year we were frequently sent down into the cellar to be safe from the tornadoes. The town’s population in those days was less than 400 and my first class at school had twelve boys and twelve girls. That went to twelve and eleven when one of the kids was hit by an 18-wheeler!”

“I was with those same kids all the way through school, from the sandbox to high school graduation. We lived in an area with many, many lakes, some of them very big, including Big Stone Lake, a freshwater lake 26 miles long, where we’d swim, water-ski, and fish for Walleye, the Minnesota State Fish. They were delicious to eat and you can find them on the menu at every restaurant in the state; the same with jello and bread pudding.”

The area around Beardsley was populated by farming people, with lots of livestock — mainly dairy cattle, with corn, beans, and sunflowers. “My mother was a Lutheran but converted to Catholicism when she married my father. We went to Mass every Sunday and together with my three bothers I was an altar boy — something I did for nine years until I left high school. Before church I would deliver the Sunday newspapers. I enjoyed that, and one year, as a result of selling a large number of newspaper subscriptions, I won a trip to Disneyworld in Florida.”

Joe’s father managed, and later bought, the local general store, while his mother raised the children before she worked at the store too. “I helped there — starting at the age of seven. I did more and more in the store as I got older, from stocking shelves to working in the butcher’s department. I also had a job rock-picking. This involved walking around the fields continually emptying a bucket full of rocks into the scoop of a tractor. These were rocks you’d pick up from the ground that would otherwise damage the farm equipment used for ploughing the field. It was very hard work.”

Joe was a very social child, always outdoors, and he participated in many sports at school. From 7th-grade on, he played on the school teams in football, where he played tight-end on offence and right guard on the defensive line, basketball, and track, but his passion was music and he was very involved, as the alto saxophone player, in the school marching band and the concert band. “We’d play at various parades, and Homecoming of course, plus many home football games, although it was crazy sometimes when I was supposed to be playing football and in the band on the same night.”

Academically Joe graduated as an honor student with a particularly strong showing in science. “I was a very well-behaved teenager; very respectful of adults and the teachers. That was certainly somewhat because as local business owners, my parents had instilled in all of us kids that we had a reputation to maintain. They were well known in the community and I was never involved in smoking, drinking, or drugs — yes, I was almost too righteous!

As the middle-ish child, Joe had grown up interacting with both his older and younger siblings and played a part in both of those worlds. “Over time, I was drawn into a role of parent to the younger kids; I was certainly a role model to them. I was always very close to my mother and she would take me to various community events where I would play piano and sing and dance. This together with all of my activities at school meant that I really did over-extend myself. With the competitiveness within our family I never seemed to stop. I moved from alto sax to baritone sax and entered music competitions continually in my last three years at high school and was very successful, winning many awards. Add to all this my sports, my serving of mass on Sundays, and my work in the butcher’s department at the store, and for a couple of years there it was non-stop.”

This all came to a head on the awards night in Joe’s senior year. “I received several awards that night: for being the President of the Senior Class, for my role as editor of the year book, as Vice President of the Student Council, an All-State football plaque, and a basketball plaque for representing the district. The one thing I really cared about was the John Phillip Souza Award for music — a big trophy — I won that too! I remember people laughing when I struggled to carry all my trophies and I was very embarrassed. I also realized at that time just how much time I spent on these endeavors and how stressed I was as a result of all the competition. This was kind of expected of me by my parents. I remember that at football games you could hear three voices shouting and screaming above everyone else — the coach, the school superintendent, and my mother!”

During his senior year, Joe tried out for the Air Force Band. “For a couple of years I had known that I wanted to join the U.S. Air Force. My two older brothers had joined and I had read lots about the opportunities and programs available. Many of my teachers were a little upset that I was not going to college but it was a done deal for me. I graduated in June of 1977 and two weeks later I was in basic training at Lackland Air Force Base (AFB) in San Antonio, Texas. Meanwhile, by that time I realized I was not going to be a professional musician so I had decided to not join the Air Force Band and I went into the intelligence field.”

From Texas, Joe moved to the Mountain Home AFB in Idaho for direct duty and on-the-job training. He received his secret security clearance and joined the 390 Tactical Fighter Squadron as support for those that flew the F111 fighter jets — low level bombers. In his first year Joe was stationed for a time in Taegu, Korea in an exercise called ‘Team Spirit ‘78’ and also in Osan, Japan. “My job involved the surveillance of maps and photographs as the Air force played war games and ‘practiced war’ on maneuvers. I loved my job, it was nine-to-five and I got to travel. After a couple of years I put in for a transfer and was re-assigned to the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean where I joined the 1605th Supply Squadron. I was a sergeant by this time and I organized the administration of the fuel at the base which was on the flight lines for planes flying all over the world and therefore a major refueling stop for the army, navy, and air force.”

Joe had received a commendation medal for his work in Idaho and then received a second such award for his time in the Azores for meritorious service. However, while at the Idaho base, he had his eardrum blown out when standing too close to an F111 taking off. “Ear protectors were not provided… A year or so later, when I was based in the Azores, I had to go for my annual ear check-up but there was no doctor there so I was flown to Germany for an appointment and was put up at a hotel in Wiesbaden for two weeks. That was January 1981 because I remember it being a month or so after John Lennon was shot. I went to my appointment at the Air Force hospital nearby and there were yellow ribbons everywhere, with cameras and hundreds of press people outside the building. I had no idea what was going on. I walked outside the main doors and was confronted by the press asking me about the hostages — the 52 who had been held in Iran for a year or so had been released that day and were in this same hospital for medical check-ups and de-briefing! The reporters asked me how they were and, even though I had no idea, I said they looked great and were doing very well — I guess that was my fifteen minutes of fame.”

Joe wished to extend his military service but only on the condition that he got to choose the next base he would be assigned to. “This was not acceptable, so I was honorably discharged in June 1981 after four years of service. I was 22 years old and life started anew.”

Joe moved to Minneapolis to stay with his younger brother Jerry and, wishing to remain in federal employment, decided to take a test with the Department of Agriculture at the Federal Building. “I was accepted and became the manuscript/editorial supervisor for the department’s Forestry Experiment Station. I was there for a few months but hated it, so one day I just opened the phone book and turned to the federal pages. I thought that the Comptroller of Currency and Administrator of the National Bank for the US Department of the Treasury sounded an interesting place to work. I called and found out that they had an opening. On the following Monday I went for an interview and started a week or so later as a bank auditor. This was also in Minneapolis and was a job I enjoyed for a short time but then my oldest brother, John, called and told me to ‘get my lazy ass down to the post office and take a test.’ I did so, scored very well indeed, and two weeks later, in March 1982, I started as an intern with the U.S. Postal Service. I had actually gone in a few days earlier in my three-piece suit thinking I was there for a follow-up interview. It turned out I had already been accepted and I was being called in for a physical — not something you would normally go to in a three-piece suit!”

“On that first day of orientation I was already working out my retirement date. The instructor caught me doing this and made me stand up in front of the class and announced, ‘Gentlemen, this fellow will go a long way in the Postal Office.’ He was right — I was there for 30 years!”

After six moths in Minneapolis, Joe was transferred to Honolulu where his speed on the computer led to a promise of promotion to full-time employment within a year. “They broke that promise and so I asked for a transfer. I wanted somewhere where I thought there would be warm weather. After a time there was a job opening for the postal service in Santa Rosa, a place I knew was in California but had no idea where exactly. I was hired sight unseen and accepted their offer with no idea about the place I was going. A month later, in November 1984, I moved to California and started work. Within a few days they made me a full-time employee.”

Joe remained at the Santa Rosa facility for a year or more before being transferred to Petaluma, a little further south towards San Francisco. “That was what I referred to as ‘Stalag 13.’ I was the express mail manager for a time and then later promoted to maintenance control. I did not like it there and in 1989 I transferred again — this time to Occidental, west of Petaluma near to Sebastopol. I was the counter clerk there for about five years.”

During that time, on July 11th, 1993 to be precise, Joe met a man by the name of Joel who lived in Yorkville and they started seeing each other. “I have never heard of Anderson Valley and didn’t know anyone there. Our relationship developed and we were talking of selling my house in Cazadero and getting a place together somewhere in between our jobs — Joel was the manager of Valley Oaks Winery in Hopland, south of Ukiah. However, before that plan developed any further, as I was by this time the acting Postmaster in Occidental, I applied for the vacant Postmaster job in Comptche, a few miles north of Anderson Valley’s west end. They offered me the position and, in February 1994, I moved into Joel’s place on Elkhorn Road in Yorkville and began to commute to my new job — the Postmaster in Comptche.”

During the nineties, as a result of the perks Joel and the winery received through his relationship with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspaper’s advertising department, Joe and Joel traveled often, including trips to France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Canada. “We also had some great parties at our place in Yorkville — the Lizard Point Ranch as it was called. I loved my job in Comptche with its small and close-knit community and I really felt part of the scene there. We would also attend many of the Valley events in those years, including the County Fair, the Woolgrowers Fair, and the Yorkville Fire Department’s Ice Cream Social for which Joel and I did the bbq for many years, also serving up our baked beans and organizing the raffle.”

By the late 90s, Joe was looking for a change and became aware that a new post office building was planned for Philo in the Valley. “I applied for a lateral transfer when the vacancy at that location came up and towards the end of 1999, I became the ‘officer-in-charge’ although it was not until a year later, in October 2000 that I was officially sworn in as Postmaster… And then in July 2012 I retired — nothing had happened!… No, I had a great time in Philo — working with Sheila Hibbs, Ann Carr, and Amy Bloyd as our custodian, was wonderful. It was a delight to have them alongside me dealing with the public. It never really seemed like a job. I so enjoyed the community, so many wonderful people there, and I felt a real part of it. I miss it tremendously at this point. I was nurtured to deal with people and that has served me well — treating people the way I’d like to be treated. We were always busy, it never stopped, and we always had something to do. The journey to Philo was a much shorter commute than my Comptche commute, but then we moved here to Ukiah in 2005 after selling the ranch in Yorkville and it was a long drive once again but I soon got used to it. More importantly, we were able to let go of all the work it required to maintain that ranch.”

One of the highlights of his time with the Post Office was when Joe won a competition between postmasters nationwide, base on sales and revenues relative to size, and was flown, along with Joel, to Nashville, Tennessee. “We were wined and dined and I got to have a one-on-one chat with the U.S. Postmaster General. I was scared to death. What would I say? Fortunately, the regional manager, who covers San Francisco to Eureka, was with us, and for her, meeting the Postmaster General was like meeting ‘God’. It helped break the ice for me. I even got to suggest that the Post Office should consider shipping wine as thousands of dollars worth of business are being turned away in our area and others like it. Joel and I were given the VIP treatment and I figured I’d worked for the guy for thirty years I might as well meet him.”

I asked Joe what he most enjoyed about his life in Anderson Valley. “The people in general, and the sense of community. The smallness, the friendliness.” And next, Joe’s thoughts or comments about these frequently discussed Valley issues or topics of conversation…

The Wineries? “Well water usage is a question of course but most of my friends are in the industry, including my partner Joel. The wineries are a very important part of Mendocino County at this point and generate lots of money from tourism”…

The AVA? “As postmaster in Philo, I was mentioned a few times over the years — and they were always very nice and positive towards me. I don’t subscribe but always enjoy it when I read it — and I do like the interviews!”

KZYX radio? “It was always on in the post office and I regard it as very important to have such a station in a community.”

Changes in the Valley? “There were many more tourists and walk-in customers in recent years. When I was first Postmaster in Philo there were 400 PO Boxes. Now there are 596 with a waiting list. In post office speak, in ten years we went from Level 13 to Level 18 in terms of growth; now we are the same as the town of Mendocino.”

I posed a few questions to Joe, some from TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I have added.

What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing? “Talking with Joel.”

What annoys you; brings you down? “Getting too many phone calls; winter rains so I can’t play tennis. There is very little actually — I’m generally a very happy, positive person.”

Sound or noise you love? “Wind chimes; squirrels chirping.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Loud gun shots; Stellar jays screaming; my friend Margaret singing! I actually can sing a little and do so for friend’s birthdays.”

Your ‘last supper’? “Sushi, sushi, and sushi!”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation over dinner, who would that person be? “Monica Seles — the great tennis player. Watching her gave me my love for tennis.”

If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “Our three animals — two cats and Cozmo the dog. We did have to move out once because of nearby fires — I got the animals out first.”

Does anything scare you? “Sharks. I like the ocean but I’ve had a couple of near encounters.”

Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? “The Holy Land — Jerusalem.”

Favorite film/song/book or one that has influenced you? “A book would be ‘Where the red fern grows’ by Wilson Rawls, about a boy who buys and trains two Redbone Coonhound hunting dogs; a film might be ‘Julia and Julia’ about Julia Childs and starring Meryl Streep; and a song would be anything by jazz singer Sarah Vaughan.”

Favorite hobby as a teenager? And now? “Music, basketball, fishing, and now tennis.”

Favorite word or phrase that you use? “It might be ‘Are we there yet?’ — a phrase I often use before I’ve even left the house.”

Profession other than your own you’d like to have attempted? “Director of a cruise ship — combining travel and people.”

Profession or job would you’d not like to do? “A mortician.”

How old were you when you went on your first date? Where did you go? “I was 16 and took Teresa to the bowling alley — it was during my ‘confusing years’!”

Something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “I wouldn’t work for the post office — I’m joking! Perhaps I would pursue a career in music but I stopped when I was 18.”

A moment or period of time you will never forget. “There are many. Kissing the Blarney Stone in Ireland comes to mind. I have had the gift of the gab ever since.”

Something you are really proud of and why? “My 18 years as a Postmaster and my 19 years with Joel.”

Favorite thing about yourself, your best quality? “That I am friendly and treat people decently, and I am kind-hearted.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “How about ‘What took you so long?’ — it would mean I’d had a long life.”

To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. The next interview will appear on the fourth Wednesday, October 24th. The guest interviewee from the Valley on that occasion will be Jerry Karp.

One Response to Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Joe Dresch

  1. humbilly Reply

    October 14, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Despite the political and financial debacle of the USPS there are many, many wonderful employees. I know many by name and enjoy the brief opportunitiy to chat, some are Vietnam Vets waiting to get the final year in to retire, man have they paid thier dues to society!!! Joe sounds like a balanced and positive person despite a very stressful job as postmaster….great interivew great guy thanks to Joe and the others who provide a great service to the public at a very reasonable cost…

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