If you've lived in Portola Valley awhile, there's a good chance that you know Lew Hess.
"(With) that big smile blasting out of the truck, you always know it's Lew because nobody has a smile that size," said Jean Isaacson, who's lived in town since 1968. "I've never seen him in a cranky mood."
Hess, a UPS driver who delivered packages and parcels throughout Portola Valley for 35 years, was all smiles on July 31, his last day before retirement. After a final day's work winding his way through the tree-lined roads, past homemade signs thanking him for his service — and "endless dog treats" — Hess made his way to the parking lot of the Portola Valley Hardware store, where residents held a socially distanced "clap-out," signed a photo book Hess' girlfriend made and shared memories and gifts: pie, wine, gift cards and thank you notes.
The week prior, at a Portola Valley Town Council meeting, Mayor Jeff Aalfs signed a proclamation honoring Hess, calling him "beloved."
"In his 35 years of working in Portola Valley, Lew has made many lifelong friends that will remain long after he completes his final route," an excerpt from the proclamation reads. "Lew has brought much heart to the town furthering that small town feel we all value and made it a better place for all to live, work and play."
Reflecting on the send-off on his first day of retirement, which he kicked off by sleeping in and reading the newspaper with a cup of tea, Hess said the response from the town was "incredible."
"Portola Valley is a special town and it always has been," Hess said. "It should've been the other way around where I was thanking them for everything they've done for me and how kind they've been to me."
A Menlo Park resident, Hess moved to the South Bay from Nebraska in 1963 when he was only a few months old. He grew up with his sister and mother, spending most of his childhood in San Jose and Campbell.
After graduating high school, Hess worked for his parents' furniture company, then took college courses and worked as a waiter, among other things. He decided that he wanted a job that had good benefits and allowed him to work outdoors and get some exercise, and UPS fit the bill.
The company, however, wouldn't hire him until he turned 21. That year, 1984, he got a job in the fall as Christmas help and was told he'd automatically be laid off Dec. 24. So he went traveling for a few weeks after Christmas, expecting to turn his uniform in when he came back.
Instead, he returned to a slew of messages asking where he was and when he'd be back at work. Hess was never laid off.
He started his UPS career working in Sunnyvale, then came to Menlo Park when the company opened new offices there. Hess bounced around Portola Valley, Woodside, Atherton and Menlo Park at first and was trained by the Portola Valley driver before taking over the route for the town a couple of years later. If a more tenured driver had wanted the Portola Valley route, Hess would have been reassigned due to seniority, he said. But the route "never went up for bid, so I kept it."
Throughout his career, Hess dabbled in different lines of work, selling real estate and owning a boutique fashion company. At times, he thought he might leave UPS, "but nothing appealed to me more than finishing and getting my retirement," Hess said.
A lot of people have come and gone over the past 35 years, but the town itself hasn't changed or grown much, Hess said.
"It's pretty odd to think there's a town in the middle of Silicon Valley that doesn't have a stoplight," he said.
What also hasn't changed is Hess' habit of engaging with residents along his route. Meeting people was "by far" his favorite part of the job — swapping recipes, hearing what people are up to, trading travel tips.
He also enjoyed greeting people's four-legged friends, keeping a steady supply of bones on hand for them and belying the notion that mail carriers and dogs don't mix. When news of Hess' retirement made its way onto PV Forum, an online forum for Portola Valley residents and business owners, several people posted photos of Hess with their dogs, lamenting how their pets would miss jumping into his truck for a treat.
"Some people tell me their dogs have a bark just for the UPS truck — they start barking in a certain pitch," Hess said.
Over the years, Hess has befriended many residents, attending birthday and Christmas parties and being invited to "way more parties than I could have possibly gone to." Eventually parties led to invitations to join in on everything from bike rides to ski trips.
Mark Paris, the former owner of the hardware store, has known Hess since he bought the store in 1985. He fondly recalls Hess dropping packages off at the store for customers who were worried about their safekeeping and calling them to let them know they'd arrived.
"He was always doing things like that," Paris said. "He was always great with customers — always positive, always helpful."
Paris and Hess became friends, and over the years they windsurfed together, taking a road trip on one occasion to windsurf in Oregon. Paris invited Hess on his sailboat, and Hess would invite Paris to barbecues at his home.
"He's always been a positive guy," Paris said. "He saw you, talked to you, always said hello and had a smile on his face."
Danna Breen, who moved to Portola Valley in 1991 and organized the send-off July 31, encouraged residents to put up signs wishing Hess well after it became clear that a party at Rossotti's was out of the question. She remembers times when her children, now in their 30s, would jump on their trampoline with Hess.
"He's part of the fabric (of the town)," Breen said. "He's always been there. ... It's a small community but he's kind of cohesive in that everybody loves him.
"I imagine we'll embrace the next person, but they're going to have big shoes to fill," she added.
Hess has a multitude of stories and memories of his own. He remembers dropping off a package at a woman's home early in his career and how she came out and implored him to write down stories of the people and situations he encounters day-to-day. He took her advice and says he probably has 100 stories written down.
"If I got together with 10 UPS drivers and we wrote our 10 craziest stories, it would be a bestseller," Hess said.
In recent years, the biggest challenge for UPS drivers has been the wave of new business brought on by an increase in online shopping, Hess said. When he started, he was the only driver in town and made about 120 stops a day. Now there are four or five UPS drivers who collectively make 600 to 700 stops in Portola Valley each day. A couple of years ago, the federal government also changed its protocol that limited anyone in the transit business to a 12-hour workday; now, employees can work up to 14 hours a day.
With COVID-19 keeping many people at home, Hess went from having relatively busy days to "it being like Christmas every day for the most part." At the same time, he felt fortunate that his job allowed him to get out of the house and talk to people.
"People were very thankful about us being out and bringing them things they really needed," Hess said.
Although Hess won't be driving through Portola Valley in his big brown delivery truck anymore, he won't be a stranger. He'll stop by to see friends, especially when the pandemic ends and there are fewer restrictions on socializing. In retirement, Hess is particularly looking forward to traveling and spending more time with his son Lucas, who just turned 4.
"It was a very warm and touching outpouring from the town," Hess said. "That's how everybody has treated me for the last 35 years — as a neighbor."