? Newspaper carrier retires after 32 years of service

By William W. Savage III

Transcript Staff Writer

Driving. Lights on. Window down. Grab a paper ? insert one, insert two ? fold twice. Hit the brakes. Bag. Rubber band. Pull over. Throw.

Repeat (370 times) between 1 and 7 a.m.

For 32 years, that was Gisela Smit's life as a newspaper carrier. Waking at midnight seven days a week, cruising east Norman on her rural route's precarious roads, getting back to the sack as the sun rose and desperately trying to sleep until noon ? praying the phone would remain silent for just a few more minutes.

But that career, which included only one tardy delivery and a stretch of four years without a single day off, ended just after dawn Thursday, when Smit stuffed her last insert in her last paper and watched it slip from her hand into a blue Transcript tube.

"Some people, maybe they were pregnant when I started this route, and now their kids are grown up and in college," the 62-year-old grandmother said. "Oh, to be 29 again."

"Twenty-nine" was 1972, when papers boasted headlines of McGovern v. Nixon and an "east Norman" route wasn't very east at all. Smit and her husband, Conrad, had relocated from South Dakota and had just broken into the carrying business.

"He took a route with the Oklahoman," she said of the man she married at 17, only 10 years after her family emigrated from Germany. "Then he started taking on more and I started running some of it."

She worked part-time for the United States Postal Service and she took a stint managing a hotel, but the other jobs faded and carrying eventually became a family endeavor. The pair kept the same abnormal hours and, for a time when the Transcript ran afternoons, delivered two papers a day. They were together, she said, and it was companionship.

They had three kids. Two of them joined the business.

Mr. Smit retired from the Oklahoman as a delivery manager, but continued to help his wife with her route when necessary.

"The only way we get a day off is to hire somebody to throw our route for us," Gisela said Thursday during her final run.

That costs money, roughly $65 a day, she said, and it's the primary reason a two-week cruise the Smits took in April marked her first days off in four years.

... Bag. Rubber band. Pull over. Throw ? 370 customers, 1,460 days in a row.

"I had to have surgery a few years ago and it cost me $800 to have somebody deliver my papers," she said. "It can really take a toll on you when you work seven days a week."

It took a toll on her knees during bad winters when she scaled icy hills up which she didn't dare drive. It took a toll on her heart, too, and she didn't even know it until a doctor asked during a check-up, "so when did you have your heart attack?"

She has arthritis, she has diabetes, high blood pressure and far less energy than she used to. In the end, she had everything she needed to retire.

"I'm not getting my diabetes under control with these hours," she said. "So I decided maybe it was time to take care of myself for a while."

So she left notes in her customers' tubes or mailboxes. She got many notes back, thanking her for years of prompt, reliable service.

"When I read one of my cards, I cried," Smit said. "'Cause it's my route, it's my job and it's like when I have something that's mine I don't want to let it go."

Retirement, however, doesn't mean she must release the memories or the stories.

Like when she saw a deer struggle (and succeed) to free itself while impaled on a rural fence post. Or when she clipped a doe crossing the street.

"She hit me," Smit recalled, "rolled five times head over heels in the ditch, got up and ran off."

Once she found a pair of drunks naked and lost, lying in the road. She thought the woman was dead.

She spent a morning stuck in snow up to her car doors. She reported two fires, extinguishing one herself and alerting firefighters before the other could spread through a new housing addition.

"I found some kids one time," she said. "Some boys had left their girlfriends out in the country so I gave them a ride."

In the '70s, she stuck large flower stickers on her car because police kept pulling her over for erratic driving ? weaving toward mailboxes across double yellow lines looks illegal.

"I found a bag of marijuana one time," she said with a laugh. "I drove it all the way to the police station and I'm glad they didn't pull me over that night."

She remembers being terrified 10 years ago when "hoodlums" chased her all over her route before crashing their car into a bridge.

"I got out of the car and my legs were rubbery, I was so scared."

And then, of course, she will always remember that morning four years ago when she failed to deliver her papers on time. She will recall it each time she sees her grandson.

Smit had already picked up the morning's papers when she got the call her daughter, Debbie (also a Transcript carrier since 1991), was going into labor.

"So after Jakob was born I went and delivered the route late," she said. "Most everybody was understanding."

Anna-Mary Suggs happened to be outside that morning to see Smit show up late.

"I remember her being so happy, and I said, 'you know, I think that's where you should have been,'" Suggs said.

Suggs moved to the area in 1988 and said Smit embodied reliability.

"More than anything, she obviously took her job seriously and did it with joy and pride and it created excellent service," Suggs said. "We've gotten really spoiled so I hope her successor is just as good as she is."

Smit delivered papers to Steve Womack for 17 years, and Womack said her service has been almost unreal in its consistency, considering he resides at the bottom of a hill that routinely turns icy in winter.

"I don't know how she does it, but it's always in the box and always dry," Womack said. "I've met her two or three times. Real nice lady. She's the kind of carrier a guy doesn't mind giving a little Christmas gift."

The Smits set out for South Dakota and his high school reunion Thursday after she delivered her last paper.

"When we go somewhere I can't sleep at night, and it's going to take my body a long time to get adjusted," she said.

But she hopes to have plenty of time to adjust, plenty of time to spend with her grandson and plenty of energy to involve herself in some of the things her job prevented her from enjoying.

"I feel like I've done a good job for my customers," she said. "I'd just like to thank my customers for being there all these years."

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