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On Madison's Near East Side, it is not uncommon to find kids playing "Steve the Mailman."

Professionally diligent and exceedingly upbeat, Steve Pingry really sells the job.

"I'm livin' the dream," he tells residents on his route near Tenney Park. 

So when lung cancer recently forced the 42-year-old father of three to stop delivering mail, residents decided the best way to cheer him up would be to bring their mailboxes to him.

More than 100 people have colored, painted and decorated paper mailboxes with personal messages for Pingry. One person crafted a 3-D mailbox out of cardboard. Others attached music CDs, pictures of their dogs and drawings of their favorite Steve-related postal memories.

"I'm touched, big time," said Pingry, who started three months of chemotherapy last week.

Michelle Weber, a friend and resident on Pingry's route, created a drawing of a mailbox, made hundreds of copies and got a map of the 562 mailboxes on Pingry's route. It took her four days to deliver the paper mailboxes to everybody.

"I did it much slower and much grouchier than Steve," she said.

So far, 107 people have sent mailboxes to Pingry and another 40 have sent cards or gifts.

Residents say Pingry made it his job to connect personally with as many people as possible. He's been known to help residents having car trouble and to call homeowners on vacation when he notices something amiss.

"I don't know what to say, I just love him," said Mike Bemis, a retiree. "He's so affable. You just feel good when you spend a couple of minutes with him."

Kirstin Pires, who works from home, said the U.S. Postal Service couldn't have a better ambassador. "A lot of times, the mail service and mail carriers are the butts of jokes in society. Boy, did he prove all that wrong."

Pingry, a musician and former cab driver, began delivering mail six years ago and said the job combines his love of numbers with being outside and "hanging out with people."

He never wore a coat in the winter — "Slows me down" — and often sported a straw fedora in the summer. Despite a nine-mile walking route, he seemed always to have time for a chat.

"I figure it's performance art," Pingry said of his job. "Each person I interact with, I have a chance to make it special."

The messages on the paper mailboxes often start with a descriptor ("I'm the one with last year's pumpkins still on the steps.") and end with a rave ("Yours was one of the first friendly faces we could count on when we moved into the neighborhood.")

One family made a collage out of their recent bills, magazines and advertising circulars. "Just in case you're missing our mail," they wrote.

Pingry, who is on indefinite leave, anticipates returning to the job, although he said he may need extra help the first day. "There'll be a lot of people to talk to," he said.

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