A photograph of a mail carrier striding through falling snow in his shorts made the rounds on social media last week. He looked neither in pain nor jubilance, as if shrugging off this lingering stretch of still-roaring-like-a-lion March. The eighth-snowiest winter in Twin Cities history was apparently no big deal.
On Twitter and Facebook, where Minnesotans proudly claimed this unnamed folk hero, some declared him a legend and a badass. Women admired his sculpted legs. He seemed to embody Minnesota exceptionalism — our no-complaints hardiness and our wintry resolve. Or maybe he captured our exasperation with this current onslaught of snow: If spring is supposedly here, we will manifest it with shorts!
I thought it would be fun to locate him, so I asked on social media if anyone could "find" the letter carrier. Within minutes, I was pinged with messages from several Star Tribune colleagues who replied that, well, we already did. Specifically, he was found by our photojournalist Jeff Wheeler, who took the picture in Minneapolis on Jan. 11, 2018. So any deeper meaning that we thought we saw in the image might still hold true — it just doesn't apply to this year.
Like most newspaper photographers, Wheeler is constantly on the hunt for pictures that convey daily life. He's shot hundreds of weather photos during his nearly 40-year career. Could he possibly recall the circumstances of that shot?
"I remember it clearly," Wheeler told me. "That day, I was driving on Park Avenue into work, on my way to a staff meeting. I was probably running late."
That's when he spotted a gnome-like figure, handsome and spry with a knit cap and trim white beard, delivering the mail in shorts. "I was like, 'Omigod, I've got to stop.' "
Wheeler pulled over, grabbed his telephoto lens, perched himself about 40 yards away, and let the man do his work. After introducing himself, Wheeler learned that the carrier was Mel Peterson, and that he was based out of the Powderhorn post office. "I'm comfortable as long as I keep moving," Peterson told Wheeler at the time. "At work, it's like, 'It must be really cold out there if Mel's wearing pants.' "
One reason Wheeler remembers the photo so well is because his father, who passed away in 2005, was a mail carrier in St. Paul for decades and also toiled in the finger-numbing cold. The work that letter carriers do is vital, and yet unappreciated, Wheeler told me.
"My dad was definitely on my mind when I was photographing Mel that day," he said. "It made me happy to be able to shine some light on Mel and all letter carriers."
The image, then and now, captured our season and surroundings better than words. Wheeler took several shots that day of Peterson, one of which landed on Page A1. And it's easy to see Mailman Mel's appeal in the North. "He's 100 percent Minnesotan, and oblivious to the snow that was falling," Wheeler said. "Mel knows winter, and he just scoffs at it."
Just about every winter, Wheeler explained, the photo resurfaces online. It was included in the Star Tribune Talkers newsletter this January. Last week, Askov Finlayson, the Minneapolis outfitter of parkas, reposted the image with Wheeler's blessing on Instagram and properly credited him. The post included the store's tagline, #KeepTheNorthCold.
What happened after that is more typical of the internet. People copied and pasted the image into their social posts, without credit or context, leaving rubes like myself to assume that the picture was taken recently, that it spoke of this moment and our feelings about an unrelenting winter.
Even after I learned the truth about the photo, however, the mystery wasn't entirely solved. People on social media insisted he was "Mel from Mora," not "Mel from Minneapolis." Could there be two Mels, delivering envelopes while defying winter in their bare calves, some 70 miles apart?
I called Lonnie Ness, broker/owner of Re/Max Select in Mora, Minn., who confirmed that the Mels are one and the same. A few years ago Peterson moved from Minneapolis to the small central Minnesota town, Ness said. Peterson is always pleasant — and always moving — probably logging "a million steps a day," Ness said with a laugh.
"Everybody is so tired of the snow," Ness added. "Mel's got one of those positive approaches. It's not cold until it gets to 10-below. He's just that kind of guy."
With Ness' help, I finally got ahold of Peterson. He set the record straight: No, he's not cold. Yes, he is Scandinavian.
Peterson, who's 59, said he sweats in the cold from being constantly on the go and wears shorts "to dissipate some of the heat." His threshold for pants is when temperatures or windchill fall to 10 degrees.
His advice for the winter-weary? "Keep looking up. The sun is shining longer. Try to get out and enjoy it. You need that vitamin D," he said. "If anyone wants to get paid to work out, get a job at the post office."
Asked why Minnesotans have made him a viral hero, he said, "It's a brutal winter, and maybe seeing me gives them hope that spring is coming."
Hope springs eternal when your mailman is wearing shorts in a snowstorm. Thank you, Mel. And see ya next winter on Twitter.