For Dave Phillips, the gift of life came bundled in with his phone bill, postcards and magazines.

A retired schoolteacher and principal, Phillips, 68, was diagnosed with kidney failure in 1996. After years of dialysis and after his body rejected a kidney transplant, he began to lose hope. None of his family members were eligible to donate, and the waiting list for another kidney was long.

That's when Phillips got help from the unlikeliest of places, his mailman.

The mailman, Paul Wagoner, donated a kidney to Phillips, a man Wagoner knew only as one of the many stops on his mail route in LaVale, Md., where he has worked for more than 15 years.

Wagoner was honored Wednesday as the National Association of Letter Carriers' Hero of the Year. The 307,000-member organization annually bestows honors upon its letter carriers for service that goes beyond the call of duty.

People in LaVale said Wagoner, 42, of Short Gap, W.Va., was the kind of mailman they would invite into their homes to use the bathroom or offer a glass of lemonade on a hot day.

One of the stops on Wagoner's mail route was Uniform Village, a store along the National Highway, owned by the Phillips family. After hearing about Phillips' health problems, Wagoner went home and wondered if there was anything he could do.

"I said to my wife that night, if your best friend needed something, what would you do?" he said.

Margie Wagoner told her husband she would do whatever she had to, and instructed him to do the same. But Phillips wasn't Wagoner's best friend. He would see the man only once a month while delivering mail. That didn't matter:

To Wagoner, the people on his route were like family.

After contacting Phillips' doctor and being approved as a donor, Wagoner approached Phillips' daughter, Toni Mullan, with the idea of donating his kidney.

"I thought he was crazy," Mullan said Wednesday. "You just don't offer your kidney to a total stranger. He's just a nice man to be able to do something like that."

The surgery was successfully performed on May 25, 2001, at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. Wagoner has fully recovered, and Phillips is well enough to take his first vacation in over five years.

"Sometimes the connection between letter carrier and patron grows rich and deep, so far beyond a smile or cheerful wave that it surpasses simple understanding," said association President Vincent R. Sombrotto, as he presented the award to Wagoner.

A tall and slender man, Wagoner blushed heavily while receiving the award and modestly explained why he did what he did.

"These are people I really care for," he said. "Some of them treat you like family."

And since the kidney transplant, the citizens of LaVale have continued to embrace Wagoner. When word got out that the mailman has a sweet tooth for chocolate, about 40 families left Hershey's bars and Hershey's Kisses for Wagoner in their mailboxes.

Some even packaged them with ice, so they wouldn't melt.

"I'm very thankful of the relationship Paul has with his mail customers," Margie Wagoner said. "If something should happen to him, they'd all be right there to help."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.