It was a total surprise for Ellen Speck of Gann Valley, when she was named South Dakota Postmaster of the Year for 2013.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Speck says. The award was announced April 26, at the League of Postmasters Convention banquet in Spearfish. She was presented flowers, an individual plaque, and the traveling plaque in the shape of South Dakota, with all the Postmasters of the Year listed.
She says postmasters throughout the state vote for the Postmaster of the Year. “I voted, too, but for someone else,” Speck says.
In addition to duties as a postmaster, account is taken for being active in the community and church.
Obviously, the size of a post office isn’t part of the criteria for the honor. Gann Valley’s post office doesn’t serve a large metropolis.
Speck grew up on a ranch in northern Buffalo County. Except for a period when she attended business college and then worked at Hand County State Bank in Miller, Speck has been a “permanent resident” of Buffalo County.
“I got married to Marvin Speck in 1966, and I started working at the Gann Valley Post Office shortly after than,” Speck recounts. “I helped part-time. Of course mail was delivered by Pony Express then,” she adds, tongue in cheek.
But Speck does acknowledge many changes over the years, especially because of computerization.
“We didn’t even have a phone in the office until 1982,” Speck says. “After the postmaster had a heart attack, I knew we had to have a fast way to get in touch, so we’ve had a telephone ever since.” Of course, that was before cell phones.
Speck began full-time after long-time postmaster Jackie Uphoff retired in 1992; however, she wasn’t officially sworn in as postmaster until April 19, 1997. Her husband died the following year, and Speck kept busy with the post office, her family, and church and community involvement.
A highpoint for Speck was the Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Corps of Discovery expedition (1804-1806). Because the expedition came through Buffalo County, Speck did several special postal cancellations.
“Those cancellations were very popular,” she recalls. “I received requests from more than 30 countries. I think people were intrigued with Lewis and Clark, as well as Buffalo County.”
Thanks to Speck’s efforts, re-enactors from St. Charles, Mo. paid a visit to Gann Valley. “You know, there were direct descendants involved. There was Bob Anderson and Josh Loftus, who are descendents of Private Shannon, who got lost down around Yankton, but was reunited with the corps. And Peyton ‘Bud’ Clark is a direct descendant of William Clark.”
She’s kept abreast of the Corps of Discovery since then. “I’ve gone to St. Charles several times, and the Sacajawea Interpretive Center, and the Natchez Trace trail.” She bubbles with excitement when she talks about how the whole history of Lewis and Clark is somewhat of a passion.
She’s also passionate about her little town, its significance, its history. “Gann Valley used to have several hundred residents,” she notes. The town celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2010, when Gann Valley area native Bryan Lutter brought mail to the celebration “Pony Express style” and delivered it to the Gann Valley Postmaster.
She’s also impressed that Gann Valley was deemed the statistical center of population of South Dakota. “There’s a GPS marker for travelers.”
Although there was some talk of closing small South Dakota post offices as part of the Postal Service cutbacks, Speck says Gann Valley will just go to shorter hours. “The post office will be open four hours rather than six and a half. But it was open four hours a day for many years before it went to six and a half a few years ago, so it isn’t a big change.”
In addition to her many years behind the window, Speck has kept busy with church and community. She has always been a member of St. Placidus Duncan Catholic Church, and she has been treasurer of St. Placidus Cemetery funds for 37 years.
She’s been treasurer for the American Legion Auxiliary since 1999, she’s a member of the board of directors of the Gann Valley Community Center, and she belongs to Modern Woodmen of America.
“Of course I always volunteer to do mowing and plant flowers and do whatever needs to be done in Gann Valley,” she adds.
Speck is the mother of three sons, and now has three grandchildren and four step-grandchildren. She is planning to retire as postmaster in September 2014. She says she enjoys spending time with grandchildren, and she needs to do a lot of housecleaning.
But, she adds, “I’ll still be available to help part-time at the post office.”