When Larry Gunkel travels to Washington, D.C., this week, he'll become the first Kansan to receive national recognition from the National Association of Letter Carriers.
Gunkel will be receiving the association's 2010 National Humanitarian of the Year award, which includes an all-expenses-paid trip to the nation's capital, a framed certificate and $1,000 in cash.
For nearly two decades, Gunkel has helped collect food year-round for needy families. Now retired, he is the food program manager for the Kansas Food Bank, helping feed 35,000 families across Kansas and running the Food 4 Kids backpack program.
"I am astonished, a little embarrassed and quite flattered," Gunkel said Monday afternoon.
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He leaves for Washington today.
The association began giving national recognition awards in 1974, said Philip Dine, director of communications and media relations for the letter carriers association.
The association is one of the oldest labor unions in the United States and represents 200,000 members, Dine said.
Seven other letter carriers will receive regional awards for their efforts, which include assisting and saving people in accidents, fires or crimes.
"Every year we recognize postal heroes," Dine said. "These are generally people who are humble about what they have done, like Larry. Each year we look at who the most notable are. The Humanitarian of the Year award may not be something dramatic like saving someone from fire or an auto accident, but it is a person who goes out of their way to serve the community. And Larry has been doing that for a long time."
At age 62, Gunkel has lived in Wichita since he was 5 years old.
"This is my home. I was born in Emporia," he said.
After returning from a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1969, Gunkel started working for the U.S. Postal Service in 1970.
In 1991, when he was vice president of Branch 201, the local letter carriers union, he helped coordinate a 10-city food-drive pilot.
In 1993, he became chairman of the annual letter carriers food drive and held that position until 2003.
He retired from the Postal Service in 2005.
By helping with the annual food drive, Gunkel also became active with the Kansas Food Bank — which, in turn, helped him get involved with the Food 4 Kids backpack program, which identifies children who receive meals at school but might not have food over the weekends.
"As a letter carrier, I've seen firsthand what the needs are," Gunkel said. "I just felt it was our responsibility to help. I just believe we've got to take care of each other — that's the bottom line."
The letter carriers are slated to be honored Thursday on Capital Hill.