The lifelong Alaskan was going to work at an Anchorage post office for a year before attending college. On Dec. 2, Hightower’s nearly four-decade career as a U.S. Postal Service employee came to an end.
Hightower — who was born and raised in Eagle River — has spent 34 of her nearly 37 years at her hometown post office. Hightower said she was the sixth clerk hired at the first Eagle River post office.
Hightower was just one of two employees who worked at the former Eagle River post office location.
Once she began working, Hightower knew she’d found her calling.
“After the first year of working at the post office, it was in my blood,” Hightower said. “My whole career has been dedicated to the post office. Getting the mail out, customer service.”
Postal work is literally in Hightower’s blood, as her father was a postal employee and her husband, Jim, retired last year after a quarter century with the U.S. Postal Service.
The post office has changed drastically over the past four decades, Hightower said.
“Things they don’t even do anymore I did manually,” she said.
That includes the old, time-consuming sorting system.
“When I started out here, the mail used to come loose loaded,” Hightower said. “It was thrown down to us out of a truck, and we had to sort it all manually.”
Seventeen clerks were needed to sort the mail with their hands, Hightower said. After her retirement, there will be just six clerks in Eagle River, she said.
“Automation has made a big difference,” Hightower said.
Hightower doesn’t think the post office will ever be phased out — but it will continue to evolve in the future.
“Change is inevitable,” she said. “It will be interesting to see where it goes.”
Throughout her tenure, Hightower held nearly every job at the post office. She served as secretary to the postmaster, window clerk, office supervisor and distribution clerk. She also worked with bulk mail, insurance claims and foreign mail.
Reflecting on her long career still surprises Hightower.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s been that many years,” she said. “The post office has been very good to me. I’ve had a good run.”
A cancer diagnosis last year forced Hightower to retire short of her 40-year goal. It also was the catalyst for Hightower’s new office attire.
After losing her hair due to treatment, Hightower wore scarves and hats to cover her bald head. Since Halloween, she’s donned a new “crazy” hat each workday and will do so until her last day.
The customer response to Hightower’s hats has been phenomenal, she said.
“I have people come in every day to see what hat I’ve got on,” Hightower said. “It’s been wonderful.”
Hightower said not coming into the post office for work will be “very strange.”
“It’s definitely going to be different,” she said. “Real different.”
Interacting with people is what Hightower likes best.
“I’m going to miss the customers,” she said. “Eagle River is still little enough we can ask, ‘How are your kids?’. It’s like everything is an extended family.”
Retirement will give Hightower and her husband time to spend with their family. They’ll also be able to participate in fun activities usually reserved for the weekends, like hunting, fishing and snowmachining, she said.
“It’s a new adventure,” Hightower said. “I’m gonna go with it and see what life has to offer.”