Postal Updates

Illinois letter carrier saves a customer’s life after finding a suicide note in a mailbox

May 13, 2024, 11 AM

Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel

The city of Benton, Ill., rests near the bottom of the Prairie State and embraces a population of 6,709. It is the seat of Franklin County and the hometown of the NBA player, coach and broadcaster Doug Collins and his high school classmate and erstwhile next-door neighbor, the actor John Malkovich. Two Interstate highways intersect a few miles to the north. There is good bass fishing in a reservoir called Rend Lake.

In 1927, Benton was the site of the next-to-last public hanging in Illinois. A bootlegger named Birger got the noose for ordering the assassination of the mayor of a nearby hamlet following a nasty war with the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1963, Benton was the domicile of Louise Harrison, sister of George Harrison, the quiet Beatle, who paid her a visit. So, there was history in the town, even before the extraordinary events of May 7, 2024.

Jay Thomas Wilkey, 49, a Benton native son, said, “Wealthy neighborhoods are few and far between — it’s more middle-income households, rural and farming. But it’s beautiful. And it’s home.”

On May 7, Wilkey, known universally as “J.T.,” was a former Federal Express employee in his fifth month as a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service.

His walking route included Louise Harrison’s old residence, now converted to a fourplex; his own parents’ house; and the home he shares with his daughter Olivia, age 21, and a boxer pup named Molly.

“I’m my own mailman!” Wilkey crowed. But Molly snarls at him anyway as he comes up the walkway as if he were just another stranger in blue.

That day, about a block and a half from his house, Wilkey passed the home of one of his regular customers. He had nothing in his bag for this mailbox and had just about passed it by when he noticed a slip of white paper peeking from the box.

On the telephone from Illinois, Wilkey told a Linn’s Stamp News reporter what happened next. It was his first interview. It probably will not be his last.

“That morning was like every other morning,” he said. “I was walking by. This individual did not have any mail, but I saw something sticking out so I went back.”

“There were two pieces of paper in the mailbox,” Wilkey recalled. “Two notes.”

“The first one said, ‘Call 911. I have OD’ed [overdosed] inside on pills,’ ” Wilkey said. “The second one said, ‘No service. Cremation only. My sister will pay for it, she owes me money. I’m dead inside.’ ”

“I got a little nervous and I put my nose to the glass and saw an individual’s legs on the floor,” Wilkey said. “I called 911. The medics and fire and police arrived on the scene very quickly. I only took a picture of the scene so I could show my postmaster what had happened. She wanted me to go home. I said, ‘I’m fine.’ Thirty minutes later, I called in and went home.”

The writer who left the notes was taken to a local hospital and was recovering when this article was written in early May.

A few hours after he found the suicide notes in the mailbox, Wilkey posted the following on a Facebook page for USPS personnel:

“Just when I thought, I understood life, I have been mistaken! As a mail carrier, you know everything about everyone that you deliver mail to.

“We don’t necessarily want to, but we are in your yard every single day. Today has weighed on my heart heavily!

“I found a suicide note in the mailbox, this individual was barely alive when paramedics arrived.

“I called 911 and they said [redacted] would have been gone if much more time had passed.

“I value life, every second of it, and I’m so thankful when I wake up in the morning and put my feet on the floor!

“It doesn’t hurt to take time out of your day to check on people!”

That is how Linn’s came to know about what happened in Benton on May 7.

“I was just doing my job,” Wilkey told Linn’s. “I did what anybody in the world would have done.”

“You saved a person’s life,” he was told. “Has it sunk in yet?”

“It hadn’t sunk in until you just said, ‘You saved a life.’ ”

There is more. It turns out that Wilkey and the person who left the notes in the mailbox had chatted nearly every day.

“You’re my only friend,” the person had said. This was the street-level, personal contact that Wilkey had missed at FedEx, the reason why he went over to the Postal Service in the first place.

“The world is angry and I’m not an angry person,” Wilkey said. “I love to talk to people and meet new people. The biggest thing that appeals to me is that being a mail carrier for the U. S. government is one of the most respected jobs you can have.”

“Who doesn’t like a U. S. Mail carrier?” Wilkey mused.

“Molly the dog,” he was told.

“I go into the grocery at Walmart and people are coming up to me and saying, ‘Man, great job. You saved a life,’ he said.

“How long am I going to be hearing about this?” Wilkey said. “I made a phone call, that’s it.”

But that’s not it.

When his daughter was born 21 years ago, Wilkey began to keep a daily journal. According to Wilkey, he wrote about “how her day was at school, what she wore, what I did, what I ate, that sort of thing.”

The task soon outgrew a single volume, and the collected works of Wilkey now fill a safety deposit box.

Someday, someone — maybe Olivia, maybe a future generation of Illinois Wilkeys — will find the books and read the entry for May 7, 2024.

On May 11, Wilkey spoke with the person while walking his route. When he delivered the mail, he was asked why he intervened.

Wilkey said that “God has bigger plans for you” and that he wanted the person to live. Wilkey then prayed with the person.

“I did not ask for this,” Wilkey said.

But like life itself, it was given, and it’s beautiful.

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