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An insider’s look at how the Postal Service decides what we stick on our envelopes

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Cary R. Brick is a periodic contributor to Sunday Weekly. He is a native Northern New Yorker and resident of Clayton, where he is active in community affairs. He retired in 2000 from the staff of the U.S. Congress after a 30-plus career as senior aide to three successive Northern New York congressmen and retired again in January after 12 years of service as a member of the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee of the United States Postal Service.

The committee selects subjects and designs for U.S. postage stamps and presents them to the postmaster general for his final consideration. At the time of his retirement he was chairman of CSAC’s Subject Subcommittee.

By CARY BRICK

Special to the Times

Recent obituaries of Joan Mondale, whose promotion and advocacy of painting, sculpture and fine arts earned her the nickname “Joan of Art” during the vice presidency of her husband, Walter Mondale, in the late 1970s, and later during his ambassadorship to Japan during the Clinton administration, made mention of her final public role in the national arena — membership on the little- known Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee of America’s Postmaster General. I am deeply honored to have served with her on that Committee.

That committee, from which I retired in January after four three-year terms of service, is appointed by the postmaster general to review and recommend to him the subjects for the nation’s postage stamps. Roughly 40,000 proposals for stamp subjects are received every year — some subjects receive a single proposal, others are supported by mass mailings and petitions. Each receives equal consideration.

The committee was established in 1957 to serve postmasters general (postmasters general is correct, though popular nomenclature would be postmaster generals) who are always lobbied heavily by the public, special interests and politicians to place their favorite subjects on postage stamps. Such placement, of course, carries a certain amount of prestige, if only for the sheer numbers of stamp sales. Tens of millions of every stamp are printed and sold every year.

The postmaster general channels the requests, and often demands, to the committee, which reviews them and presents him with a list of subjects and designs for his consideration and approval once a year. Upon my appointment to the committee in 2002, I learned quickly how seriously that responsibility is taken.

While many Americans pay little attention to the stamp subjects, requesting only “pretty” or “patriotic” stamps from post office clerks, others focus on them as windows into everyday America, educational tools illustrating our history and its past and present culture and our people — views untainted by politics, propaganda, media interpretation or censure. Unbeknownst to most American consumers, our postage stamps are treasured and highly desired collectibles internationally, especially in the Far East, where stamp collecting is an educational phenomenon. Yes, while stamp collecting is in decline in America, a hobby often considered reserved for “geeks,” the opposite is true in many other nations.

What is the process?

The committee meets four times annually in Washington. During those sessions, proposals that have met the criteria for consideration — published on a committee link on the Postal Service website (http://wdt.me/4Cmg3Y) are discussed at length. Members bring their own proposals to the table, as well. It has two working groups: the first, which I was privileged to chair during my final year on the committee, focuses on subject selection; the second, on stamp designs and artwork for subjects approved previously.

From start to finish, a particular stamp subject and its design may be in the discussion and design process for two or more years. The committee prepares its recommendations for the future usually three or four years ahead of time. In preparing any particular year’s stamp program, members strive to achieve a balance of subjects — historical, educational, patriotic, cultural, artistic, holiday, subjects reflecting national diversity and the list goes on and on. Some are annual musts — flags, for example. Other favorites guaranteed to be popular — cats and dogs, flowers, colorful scenery, Lincoln, Washington and national monuments.

A Look Inside

Do the members always agree? Is the work “cut and paste?”

No way. The discussions are often spirited. Opinions are strong. Members disagree at times but adjourn as friends, respectful of their varying ideas. Consensus is ultimately reached. Cordiality prevails.

Does the postmaster general follow the process?

Yes. Postmaster General Patrick Donohoe, who has spent his entire life within the post office working his way from the lowest rung of the ladder to the top as CEO of the Postal Service, has a genuine enthusiasm for the subjects and designs. I cannot recall a meeting in which he did not make it a point to meet with us and demonstrate his interest in our work.

(As a personal aside, he is a huge fan of automobile-related stamps, as am I. My wife, Janet, and I have accepted his invitation to join him when he dedicates some yet-to-be-revealed-publicly stamps depicting sporty hot rods at a national car show in York, Pa., later this year. I’ve seen them — they are beautiful!)

Who’s on the committee?

Members are term-limited to 12 years. During my tenure, in addition to Joan Mondale, whom I mentored when she joined the committee, I was privileged to serve with actor Karl Malden, Notre Dame basketball coach and ESPN sports personality Digger Phelps (whose father was once a Sackets Harbor undertaker and who told me his boyhood signature is etched within the steeple of the Presbyterian church in that village), Olympic Gold medal winner and ABC sports commentator Donna De Verona, Harvard professor and public television documentary host Dr. Henry Louis Gates (of “ White House Beer Summit” notoriety), Dr. Michael Heyman (a scholar who as a young attorney served as law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren, then taught law, became chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley and finally retired as head of the Smithsonian Institution) and a cadre of lesser-known but distinguished leaders in the fields of history, letters, the arts, literature, pop culture, film, law, science, education, design and publishing.

Past members include painter Andrew Wyeth, author James Michener and actor Ernest Borgnine. In-house lore tells of a nationally recognized CNN interviewer who was appointed but left as soon as he discovered that attendance at meetings was expected — thus creating the 2002 vacancy that opened an appointment for me, the first member with nonpartisan Capitol Hill credentials anchored in a north country-type grassroots background.

Out of hundreds of stamps, any favorites?

I focused on championing Americana, patriotic, historical and educational subjects that I felt depicted middle and rural America. At one time we had a Military Subject Task Force, which I chaired. I am particularly proud of the Purple Heart, Medal of Honor and military heroes issues. Others in which I find pleasure include medical research subjects, lighthouses, national parks, heroes of our democracy, ships, cars and their designs, baseball greats, entertainment icons and most recently, a sheet called “Building a Nation” featuring the workforces of 20th century who built our skyscrapers, mined our resources, created our transportation networks, toiled in the sweatshops and were the backbones of American industrial growth.

I respected the passions of my colleagues who championed artsy and pop culture subjects and those who brought forth proposals focusing on groups and cultures ignored for decades on previous stamp issues. Like every American postal consumer or mail recipient, I admired some designs more than others, chose not to buy a few and purchased many of the others.

Lesson learned?

Every single stamp subject has its champions and its detractors. Diversity in postage stamp subjects and designs cater to both.

‘Integrity, Intellect and Commitment’

The postmaster general honored the author at a testimonial dinner in Washington in recognition of his service to the Postal Service. In making a presentation, Postmaster General Donohoe said, in part: “Cary Brick brought his enthusiasm for all things American to the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee. He considered it a serious responsibility to help develop stamps that would be warmly received by the American public … he was tireless in his efforts to honor those who serve our country and his thoughtful, broad-minded definition of public service encompassed diplomats, astronauts and coal miners alike … he leaves behind a body of work that speaks volumes about his integrity, his intellect and his commitment to his nation.”



Thumbs up, thumbs down
A few of my favorites and not-so-favorites. This is a partial list, for sure. I have strong opinions on most of the estimated 1,400 stamps issued during my years on the Citizens Stamp Advisory Committee!
STAR-SPANGLED BANNER FLAG: Just released. It is patriotic. It is colorful. It is A+. I’ll buy and use it with pleasure.
HARRY POTTER: Ugh. A booklet of 20 stamps. A worthy experiment in pop culture by the committee and hugely popular in some circles, but I don’t see young people running to their post offices to stock up. At 49 cents each, they’re expensive stickers for me to send to my grandkids.
RAY CHARLES AND JOHNNY CASH: On sale now. Giants in music, great in design.
THE SIMPSONS: Funny, entertaining and colorful. But a little too whimsical for my taste. That notwithstanding, they were popular!
SUPREME COURT JUSTICES: A representative example of many educational issues. Not very attractive, for sure. I understand it’s hard for designers to make “dead head” (CSAC lingo for portrait-style) stamps worthy of a second glance. But they can be excellent teaching tools — there’s a lot of history that can come alive through stamps.
When I taught Introduction to American Government as an adjunct prof at Jefferson Community College, sadly not a single student could identify any member of the Supreme Court. If I were still teaching, I’d use these stamps (and others) as hands-on tools.
KATE SMITH: Diva of American patriotism. Not a blockbuster stamp but a worthy tribute to a major entertainer known as the First Lady of Radio in the 1940s and ’50s. Her “God Bless America” is legendary.
She was adopted by the Philadelphia Flyers as their “good luck charm.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced her to King George VI of England after a command performance at the White House, saying, “Your majesty, this is Kate Smith. This is America.” Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook website says “if there were a Mount Rushmore of popular song, Kate Smith’s formidable profile would undoubtedly be featured there.”
When I proposed her stamp it was pooh-poohed by some of my colleagues, but I prevailed. She spent years at Lake Placid and is at rest at St. Agnes cemetery there. God bless Kate’s stamp!
LYDIA MENDOZA: Currently on sale. Targeted at the Latino consumer market. Though I like her music, the design just doesn’t excite me to the point where I want to invest 49 cents in the stamp.
MARGARET CHASE SMITH: Like Kate Smith, not a blockbuster stamp but historically significant.
A pioneer in public service but probably would have objected to being called a “feminist.” The first woman to be nominated for the presidency at a national political convention. The first woman to serve in both the House and Senate.
Her “Declaration of Conscience” (Google it!) is a document worthy of study by every student of history and government. One of my personal congressional heroes, a political moderate, I championed her recognition.
ROCK STARS AND DRUGS: Call me old fashioned or just call me old. Or just call me out of touch with pop culture with my 68-year-old sense of what is appropriate buried in the sand. But I just cannot get on board with any stamp celebrating rock stars whose lives and deaths have been drug-related. I may enjoy their music, but to celebrate their association with the drug culture offends me. Stay tuned, (sadly) there’s more in the pipeline.
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