The Marvellettes sang "Hey, Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman" 40 years ago. The residents of Muddy, Ill., are singing it today.

Amidst some boarded-up buildings, a neglected nightclub, a jerrybuilt bowling alley and a rundown hotel in this dusty, almost forgotten former coal-mining town, a lone, dilapidated post office remains.

It may not look like much. "It's ten-and-a-half by six-and-a-half," says Kathy Rowlen, the post officer-in-charge. "And that’s the whole building." But it has become the epicenter of a dying town, and has prompted back-room dealings, letter writing campaigns or other staples of hardball politics in an effort to save it.

'$2 or $3 Billion Loss'

Muddy has exceptionally meek mail volume, as befits a tiny town. "We've been saying it's 87 people," says Muddy resident and local business owner John Molinarolo of the current population, "I think the latest census count pulled that down somewhat, down to 76," he says.

Such small numbers make the Muddy post office one of more than 25,000 around the country that is losing money. As a result, it is an office the United States Postal Service has slated to close.

"We’ve suddenly found ourselves in a situation where we are facing a two or three billion dollar loss," says, Deborah Willhite of the USPS.

But when the idea of shutting it down was quietly floated, the community geared up for a fight.

"In a lot of little towns, it doesn't make business sense" to have a post office, says Gary Fry, a Postal Service spokesman. "But you get huge battles when you try to consolidate or move offices. Americans' sense of community identification is wrapped up with their post offices."

All of Muddy turned out and protested what they felt was a threat to their connection to the outside world. The residents wrote to every elected official in southern Illinois, as well as most of the U.S. Congress.

And although they didn't see much hope — "I honestly didn't think we had a chance of a snowball in July," says Molinarolo — the political pressure paid off. The Postal Service unexpectedly announced that all post offices operating in the red would remain open.

'A Problem Evolving For 30 Years'

"The reason post offices around the country are open even though they lose money is because the Postal Service is mandated by Congress to bring the country together through communication," says Judy de Torok, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service. "We are a unique entity in that we have a public service mission and yet we have a mandate to operate as a business," she says pointing to an operating revenue for fiscal year 2000 of $64.54 billion.

But some in Congress are eager to address the budget shortfall. "This has been a problem that's been evolving for 30 years now," says Rep. John McHugh, R-N.Y.

"You have the USPS that most Americans expect to do an incredibly difficult job — and do it routinely under a legal structure that dates back to the 1970s," says McHugh. "I can't think of another business in America — let alone one that operates somewhere near the level of $60 billion a year — that is using virtually the same business practices today that it did even 5 years ago, let alone 30.

"We've been trying for the last now 5 1/2 years to put together a bill that at the end of the day does more good than harm. And still has the necessary political support to be passed. That's the reality we can't escape. This is an issue under the domain of the United States Congress. That means politics comes into play — and not necessarily partisan politics.  [There is] very parochial politics," says McHugh.

Either way, Muddy residents can look forward to a brand new post office — and that's sweet music to the ears of Molinarolo.

"At least now we have a place where we can go and retrieve our mail, and we're satisfied with that. We're happy with that," he says. "Let's not say we won. The Postal Service agreed to keep it open, and this is great."