Back when television was an exhibit at the World’s Fair, back when the information superhighway was a potholed road, Betty Cole’s front door was the gateway to the world for Newman Lake.
Cole, 98, was postmaster. Her odd stone house was the post office with two front doors, one for family and one for prize offers, unwanted solicitations, faraway news and the locals trudging in to receive it.
Lined with a few pigeonhole boxes for local delivery, the office was laundry-room sized. There was a service window that Cole staffed six days a week for nearly 40 years. Only a dairy farmer, obligated to milk his cows daily, stays closer to home.
So much of what the U.S. Postal Service is now doesn’t fit into Cole’s local post office. When a young woman regretted mailing a Dear John letter in a moment of anger to a soldier overseas during World War II, Cole retrieved the letter and gave it back.
She wrote bills of sale and wills. Schoolchildren struggling with class papers called Cole for the right word. She kept their secrets.
“A woman got a letter, and I called her. I said ‘Oh come running, I can’t wait to see what it says,’ ” Cole said. “And she said, ‘Oh read it to me, I can’t wait.’ “
Spokane County Library District kept a shelf stocked with books for people to check out at the Newman Lake post office. Whatever the postmaster was reading became the most popular book.
Dorothy Powers, a retired Spokesman-Review columnist, once characterized Cole as the mother hen of Newman Lake. It seemed the community would unravel without Cole. It frequently didn’t know what to do without her.
“She was a mainstay down there before World War II when things were really, really different,” said Peggy Rose, a 51-year resident of Newman Lake. “There was no electricity, and we had to use batteries. When it ran out, you took it to the garage. Then, the first time they saw someone coming up your way, they sent the battery with them. Betty did the same thing with parcels.”
On occasion, Cole even sent her son, Robin, out with the mail, which was delivered by boat around the lake at one point.
Robin remembers when a neighbor called upon his mother to deliver insulin to a diabetic who was shut in by the weather. It was the winter of 1969 and snow around the lake was 8 feet deep.
“They had a dog that liked to stray and it was down at the post office,” Robin said.
The Coles reasoned they could tie the medicine to the German shepherd’s collar and have it make the delivery, if only they could be sure it would go home.
Robin loaded the dog into his car and drove toward the lake until the snow in the unplowed road made travel impossible. He let the dog out of the car and fired a shotgun blast overhead to scare it home.
“It was different then,” Cole said. “It used to be the center of the community.”
It was the information hub.