There’s a lot to be said for having “too much time on one’s hands.” You know, it’s the kind of thing you say when you see 5,000 soup cans superglued together and someone calls it “art,” or the neighbor who sits on his front porch all day whittling lawn ornaments out of firewood or like on “Seinfeld,” when Kramer would make his “macaroni Midler” or “fusilli Jerry” (which later found its way up Frank Costanza’s backside). You get the picture?
The height and breadth of all this wonderful gift of leisure time found its way to one U.S. citizen who has remained out of the limelight most of his life.
I present to you ... Mr. Ed Zajac.
The reason why I present Mr. Zajac to you in this manner, ie, too much time on his hands, is because he did something that is so astounding ... so ... incomprehensibly smart ... that it has been a part of our lives for so long now no one ever asks, “Where did that come from?”
My friends, my neighbors, my dear readers ... Mr. Zajac invented the zip code.
Go ahead. Have your laugh. I did. I even said, “Whatever,” when I heard this little wisp that happened to cross my path.
Then I sat down with him in his kitchen and got the story. And though I joke about him having had too much time on his hands, he actually had come out of retirement to work for a company called Mountain Fuel in Salt Lake City when he developed it.
He grew up in Illinois and spent the majority of his life working as an accountant for U.S. Steel, crisscrossing the country. Just after World War II, he got interested in computer programming, which was a head scratcher for any normal person walking down the street. Zajac saw the future in that dumpster-sized machine and wanted to learn how to use it. He was one of about 20 people nationwide that got the training, and he was pretty much able then to write his own ticket. He contends that he was getting up to three job offers a day from different companies trying to entice him away from U.S. Steel.
His wife urged him to take some time off, due to some physical setbacks he was having from the long hours of work.
“I retired ... for about a year,” he said.
One day he got a call from Mountain Fuel. They wanted to set up a computer system for getting their billing system straightened out. Could Ed help?
He said, “They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
He was only “allowed’”to work eight hours a day, but was generally working 13-14 hours a day. His assistants were Kelly Girls, who really were only allowed to work eight hours a day, so when one went home, another came on duty.
Ed also said that since most of the gals who worked for him were LDS (Mormon), he knew they didn’t drink coffee, so he asked if they’d work through their coffee breaks, and they did. The problem, he said, is that with so many people coming and going, it was hard to get them all on the same page.
The zip code system was designed to get bills to the right place. There were only four digits in the original system.
“It was basically designed to get the bill delivered faster and with more accuracy, and to receive payments in a more timely fashion.”
Once the system was up and running efficiently, Zajac realized its importance and offered it to the U.S. Postal Service. As a gift, more or less.
He worked for Mountain Fuel for 12 years, during which he received public service letters from three different postmaster generals for his part in establishing the ZIP code system. He was also crowned “Mr. ZIP Code.”
He retired at the age of 51, at the urging of his wife, Agnes. She showed him that his years of tight fiscal planning and budgeting would enable him to retire and live well, and that they did. He bought a trailer and they traveled all over North America.
Although Agnes is gone, Mr. Ed is still up and at ‘em at the tender age of 93.
And as another part of this little story, pre-zip code:
On June 8, 1959, the U.S. Postal Service thought they had solved the problem of slow mail delivery. The Navy submarine, USS Barbero, fired a guided missile carrying 3,000 letters at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Fla.
The event was heralded as historically significant for the entire world by a postal official, with the idea that mail would be delivered around the world within hours by way of guided missile.
It gives the term “going postal” a whole new meaning.
So in spite of junk mail, thank goodness for Mr. Ed’s idea.