Special delivery(man)

By Jason Ferguson

After nearly 35 years on the job, David “Sully” Sullivan’s final day as a driver for UPS will be Friday. He has driven the Custer route since 2006.

Over the course of history, April 15 has been a significant date in the United States. It’s Tax Day, the date of Abraham Lincoln’s death and when the Titanic disappeared into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

It’s also on that day in 2006 that “Sully” became the driver for the United Parcel Service’s (UPS) Custer route.

“I like to say four major tragedies happened on that day,” Sully jokes in true Sully fashion.

Most people know only the nickname of David Sullivan, the affable UPS driver who has been making right turns for UPS for 34 years and 10 months, 12 years of which he has spent delivering packages to the people of Custer.

That will come to an end this Friday, however, when the most popular Sully this side of Hudson River water landings delivers his final package for UPS and trades in his UPS brown for the Hawaiian shirts, bath robes and blue jeans of retirement.

Sully figures he has driven over a million miles for UPS and has delivered more packages “than he cares to remember.” He’s done it all with a smile and wit that has made him a favorite among Custer residents and business owners alike, to the point that some tear up at the thought of his retirement.

Count the Custer County Library staff among those who will miss him. Library director Doris Ann Mertz said some on the staff cried when he gave them a card as part of his “farewell tour” over the past month.

“We are going to miss him so much. We have been sad for a while just thinking about it,” Mertz said. “But, we are happy that he is going to get to retire and not have to deal with sketchy roads and bad weather anymore. We just don’t like thinking about not seeing him almost every day.”

Longtime Custer postmaster Larry Stalder has worked closely with Sully for the duration of his time in Custer, and said he considers him a friend and not a rival, which is often the case with UPS and U.S. Postal Service employees.

“He’s a super nice guy. The community is going to miss him,” Stalder said. “He’s just a super person.”

Had Sully not switched careers four years after graduating college, Custer residents would never have known just how charming he was.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Sully became a UPS driver, considering that he criss-crossed the country as a child. With a father in the U.S. Army, Sully was used to traveling thousands of miles long before he was in a big brown truck, when his family moved from Kansas City (the reason he is an avid Chiefs fan) to Georgia, Canada, New York, Kentucky, Kansas and finally to eastern Tennessee. He attended college at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, from which he received a degree in education. Yes, Sully started out as a teacher.

So how did he end up in South Dakota? And how did he end up at UPS?

After graduating from college he was hired to teach school at Oglala Community School in Pine Ridge on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which he said he enjoyed thoroughly.

However, it was around this time that he married his wife of 36 years, Denise, and the two began to think about starting a family. On what was then a nine-month teaching contract, the couple doubted they had the money to raise a family.

That’s when someone told him that UPS was hiring.

The year was 1984, and Sully decided to apply. He was hired and was instantly made a full-time driver, something extremely rare in those days. He can’t recall what his first delivery was, but he knows it was somewhere in Rapid Valley.

Over the years, Sully spent time being a “swing driver,” a term given to someone who drives different routes as assigned each day. That led him to driving the Custer route one day for the regular driver. It was an instant love affair.

“I was like, ‘this is so beautiful. I would love to have this route,’” he said.

He got that chance in 2006 when the driver of the route retired. He requested the route, and his seniority led to him landing the gig. The rest is delivery history.

Sully says the route has changed a great deal in his time as driver of the route. The tourist season in the summer “went through the roof,” he said, leading to his calling tourism season “a second Christmas.”

“From May 1 it’s like Christmas, only the boxes are heavier,” he says with a laugh.

And he knows all about heavy boxes.

Like any UPS driver who has been around the block (a million times), Sully has his share of stories about interesting customers or unwieldy packages. Some aren’t fit for print. Some, like the “blue tarp” package he once delivered, are.

There was a large package, wrapped in blue tarp, he was to deliver to downtown Custer. The problem was the package had no structure to it, and he couldn’t get it on a cart. The only way to get the obscenely heavy package to the front porch was to manhandle it. He finally got it to the porch. Barely.

“Holy cow that wore me out,” he laughed. “I wondered if ‘Candid Camera’ was watching me. It got the best of me.”

Then there was the time, motivated to deliver every package every day to the best of his ability, he decided to walk a package up a steep hill to a customer at the top. When he got to the top of the hill, he decided he needed to have a talk with the customer.

“I said, ‘I’d love to do this every time, but you’re going to find me dead on the driveway,’” he said. “Then you’re going to be mad because you’re going to have to roll my body down the hill out of the way.”

The two agreed to a better system that spared them both a dead body.

 It is the customers that Sully will miss the most in retirement. A self-described “people person,” Sully said he has been overwhelmed with the kindness he has experienced since he took over the Custer route, particularly in these final weeks as word of his impending retirement spreads.

“I think people have liked me and I’ve liked them, especially the ones who have helped me dig out from being stuck in the snow or pulled me out (the big brown trucks don’t do very well in the snow, it seems),” he said. “I am so truly blessed, especially with the Custer route. I love them all.”

What he won’t miss is the constant lifting, driving around in the dark and on the ice.

He definitely won’t miss the ice.

“Sliding backwards on ice will make your heart stop,” he said.

Sully won’t go too far, as he will remain in Rapid City. The 61-year-old said retirement will provide him the flexibility to help take care of both his own and his wife’s elderly parents, while also having more time to spend with his children and hobbies such as traveling, golf and reading. Well, as much reading as his eyelids can stay open for.

“I told somebody at work I’m going to read in retirement,” he said. “That’s code for a lot of naps. I’m going to read a paragraph and take a nap.”

He isn’t sure who will take over his route, but whoever does will inherit not only a Black Hills UPS driver’s dream route, but enormous shoes to fill. Whoever it is that ends up in Custer, Sully says, he hopes they are shown the patience and grace he was when he started on the route.

“I had to learn a lot when I took the route. There was a lot I didn’t know about driving in the Hills, driving conditions in the winter, what people’s preferences are,” he said. “Give him a chance to grow into the job.”

And although you will no longer see Sully in the familiar brown attire of UPS, chances are you’ll still see him. He bought Black Hills Burger and Bun coupons for his family in the hopes they will take him to lunch here, and Custer is one of his favorite places to hike.

“I  won’t be a stranger, but nobody will recognize me because I packed all my brown stuff and I’m taking it to UPS,” he said with a laugh. “I feel like I have 2,700 friends, or whatever the population of Custer is. I don’t stay in one place very long, but the back and forth between the customers, if you do something long enough consistently, you get to know a little about people. I look forward to seeing them and wonder how I can bug them today.

“Over a period of time, they transition from customer to friend. That’s the most enjoyable part. It’s been amazing.”