Mike Combs: ‘Through rain, sleet or protesters, we would deliver the mail’

August 9, 2019
portrait of Mike Combs smiling
Mike Combs has worked in UC Berkeley’s Mail Services for more than 30 years. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

“I started working in Mail Services at UC Berkeley in 1985. Back then, mail was very, very important. Everything was through the mail. It was basically the way people look at the internet now. If you had a question for someone and you couldn’t call them, you would send a letter. If you needed something from Human Resources, you would put it in an envelope.

Mike Combs sorting mail
When Combs started working in Mail Services in 1985, “mail was very, very important,” he says. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

I’m a senior mail processor. I’m basically in charge of all the mail that comes onto the campus. I help set up the delivery routes, make sure deliveries are done and sorted correctly.

When I first started working here, there were 49 staff in Mail Services. We’d get between 50 to 60 trays of mail every day, plus hundreds of tubs of flats. Each tray had up to 250 letters in it. That’s more than 1,000 letters a day. And that’s not counting the flats and packages. We were busy. 

When Combs started working at Berkeley in 1985, he was a farm and ranch management major at Colorado State University. He began taking classes at San Francisco State, and transferred the credits until he earned his B.S. from Colorado State. He also has a B.A. in economics from S.F. State. (Photo courtesy of Mike Combs)

We used to deliver mail twice a day. I love being outside. That’s one thing I love about the job: I’m outside all day, every day, running around this campus.

Through rain, sleet or protesters, we would deliver the mail. In 1985, I was delivering the mail to the chancellor’s office, where students were protesting apartheid in South Africa. They surrounded the building, and the police closed it down, so I was stuck inside for a little while. Not even a half hour. They set up a little table inside with doughnuts for us.

Each department had its own personality. It didn’t depend on the subject, but on the people in the department. You would see the personalities change as people rotated in and out. I would go in and tell a joke, which was good for me, because I could tell a joke 100 times a day, and I could get the timing down. The best part about doing that was I’d tell a joke to somebody, then somebody in a cubicle across the room would start laughing.

Here’s a joke I’d tell: Why does the seagull fly over the sea? Because if it flew over the bay, it’d be a bagel.

I’ve watched my job change so much over the years. We had a manager in the early ’90s who started calling all the people on campus “customers,” which threw me for a loop because these were my co-workers. I was out there all the time running through their offices. Customers. Oh, man, that kind of irritated me. To me, getting out and about was the fun part. But that’s the way things kind of went. Now, it’s very much so.

Family portrait of Mike Combs, his wife and two daughters taken in 1990
Combs with his wife, Valerie, and two daughters, Heather (left) and Jennifer. Valerie, whom Combs met in elementary school, earned a degree in geophysics from Berkeley in 1985. (Photo courtesy of Mike Combs)

The internet started taking over in the late ’90s. Then, probably around 2000, mail started to slowly drop off. A lot of people would send both email and paper mail. They always liked to have the hard copies because they’d had it their whole lives. My former manager, who retired four years ago, said from 2004, mail has dropped 10% each year.

Now, there are seven of us in Mail Services. We get about four trays of mail per day, along with all of the Amazon deliveries. The really huge boxes are a challenge, but we manage to deal with it all. We also offer shredding, which adds another dimension to our services. Even though the staff of Mail Services has dropped by 42 FTE over the years, our crew has adjusted with the times and is still very busy.

You can tell that some of the newer people on campus don’t know anything about mail. I mean, the internet is great, but it has really affected the mail industry.

Mike working in the mail room

Throughout his time in Mail Services, Combs says the number of staff has decreased from 49 to just 7. (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)

Besides being a mail carrier, I have also worked to improve the campus. I have been on the governing counsel of the Berkeley Staff Assembly. I have served on the Berkeley Initiative for Equity, Inclusion and Diversity. And I’ve been on the Chancellor’s Staff Advisory Committee.

I have a learning disability — I’m dyslexic — and my grandmother was Creek (Muskogee) Native American, and both are underrepresented in many areas on campus. They have made great strides in getting these groups better represented. I don’t know if I helped, but I tried. Things are better than there were, but there’s still a long way to go.

Working at UC Berkeley, I feel like I’m part of something big. When I retire, it’ll be hard leaving a place that is changing the world.”

This profile is part of a series highlighting staff who have worked at UC Berkeley for 30 years or more, as a way to celebrate their contributions to the campus. It’s produced by Anne Brice and Gia White, an administrative director for the Institute of European Studies, who has worked at Berkeley for 30 years. 

Mike Combs and Gia White stand side by side, smiling
Combs and Gia White (UC Berkeley photo by Irene Yi)