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Gene Rudolph of West Fargo, prepares to head out on his daily mail route. Rudolph was honored Thursday for his years of service at the West Fargo Post Office. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

Million-mile mailman

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Gene Rudolph had no idea what he was getting into by answering that "help wanted" ad in the Fargo Forum back in the early 1970s.

But what began on a whim has turned into a lifelong career - one spanning more than three decades and nearly one million miles of accident-free driving - as a United States Postal Service letter carrier in West Fargo.

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On Thursday, Gene Rudolph, 63, was awarded for his time of service and immaculate record with a pin and plaque from the National Safety Council's Million Mile Club; a national program recognizing drivers who have gone at least 30 years or one million miles without a preventable motor vehicle accident.

"It's a big deal," West Fargo Postmaster Peter Slabik said. "That's a long time without bumping into anything - especially around here."

Gene Rudolph, who lives with his wife, Sharon, in West Fargo, was humbled by the small get-together of USPS employees celebrating his feat Thursday.

"I don't know what to say. I guess I could retire, but I've already tried that and Pete wouldn't let me," Gene Rudolph said, garnering a laugh from the crowd.

He actually could have retired eight years ago at the age of 55, Sharon Rudolph said, but her husband couldn't walk away from the job that he had grown to love.

"I really enjoy the people," Gene Rudolph said. "And the time - it went so fast"

Much has changed

His first route with the West Fargo Post Office involved more than 12 miles of walking. That was back when he was a bit lower on the totem pole, he said. Nowadays, Gene Rudolph's route, which spans a good chunk of West Fargo's section of Main Avenue, requires more driving than walking. It also takes Gene Rudolph into more than 150 businesses, Slabik said, where he gets the opportunity to interact with the people and employees inside.

That relationship with individuals is the part of Gene Rudolph's job that he loves the most.

"You get to know people, and they know you," he said.

With so many run-ins with the same people, it befits a letter carrier to have an outgoing demeanor; a quality Gene Rudolph most certainly possesses, Slabik said. "He's easily one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet."

The longtime letter carrier's outgoing friendliness wasn't lost on Sharon Rudolph. In fact, it's what caught her attention in the first place.

"He was my mailman," she said, with a smile. "At least that's what I tell people." The two have been happily married for 10 years.

And after nearly 40 years of driving or walking "pretty much every West Fargo route," Gene Rudolph is a fairly well-known figurehead in the growing city.

"Everyone knows Gene," Sharon Rudolph said.

Gene Rudolph even remembers what it was like to work in the West Fargo Post Office's old location, a small building that now houses a church on Sheyenne Street.

"Let me see," he said, counting on his fingers. "We had five people at the time working there, and we were just crammed in that old post office.

"We've come a long ways."

Gene Rudolph has, too. Before beginning his career with the USPS, he was working for a local construction company. After first catching a glimpse of the wanted ad in the classified section, he pulled some strings, borrowed the company vehicle and drove through a blizzard to get to the initial meeting. Once there, Gene Rudolph was put in a room with two other people to take a test for the position.

"We have 50 people take that test now, and (the post office) has to rent out a room for all of them," he said.

Three weeks after taking his test, Gene Rudolph got a phone call to come in for a formal interview.

"And the rest, as they say, is history," he said.

Honorable distinction

It's a history that continues as long as this particular veteran letter carrier doesn't up and retire; an act Gene Rudolph said he does not plan on doing anytime soon.

According to Dan Weber, District Manager of Safety/Health Resource Management in Sioux Falls, S.D., Gene Rudolph does not have quite one million miles under his belt, but that should not downplay the significance of his recognition into the Million Mile Club.

"We have two types of drivers: city and rural," Weber said. "City drivers may only put on 10-15 miles a day, while rural drivers can travel upwards of 200," he said. Whether they are driving many miles or many years, accomplishing either without an accident is an equally honorable achievement.

According to the United States Postal Service website, the Million Mile Club is the highest honor given to a professional driver in the workplace by the NSC. The organization considers the driving feat on par with what cresting Mount Everest would be for a professional spelunker. Not only is the Million Mile Club a nation-wide program, but it also spans drivers of all kinds, including semi-truck drivers, Weber said.

While the district West Fargo is included in - which encompasses all of North Dakota, South Dakota and northwest Minnesota - averages between 30-35 entrants into the club a year, Weber said Gene Rudolph is the first from the West Fargo Post Office. Other area recipients of the award came from post offices in Wahpeton, Jamestown, Grafton, Fargo-Trollwood and three each from Moorhead and Fargo-Prairiewood.

In fact, the regional district is one of the safest in the nation, having had "the best motor-vehicle accident rate per million miles driven in the past 17 years," Weber said. "

The significance of this isn't lost on Weber.

"It's the simple fact that you can get killed out there, or kill someone else. It's ugly out there, especially with our weather," he said. "But these guys do very well."

Gene Rudolph now belongs to a group few people in his profession reach. His Million Mile Club plaque would be well displayed in a prominent area, such as a fireplace mantle.

Or maybe his "man room" wall.

"Right next to his baseball cards," Sharon Rudolph said, smiling.

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