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Harborview’s mailroom can bustle just as much as its emergency department. On a recent afternoon waves of faculty and staff buzz in and out, picking up packages, sending out pathology slides and exchanging jokes and updates.

At the center of it all is Kenn Arning. Since May 31, 1978, Arning has faithfully connected mail with recipients, lost visitors with destinations and colleagues with each other.

“He’s the heart and soul of Harborview,” says Dr. John Lynch, ducking in to pick up mail. “He keeps the front entrance nice and warm and cozy. Kenn makes it a happy place to work.”

It’s a common refrain.

“Kenn knows absolutely everything and everyone,” says Johanna Brown, a program coordinator at the Rehabilitation Medicine Clinic. “He’s a huge asset.”

In 40 years, Arning has never once thought of leaving.

“I feel like I’m doing something valuable and useful,” he says. “No, I’m not a physician, but I fulfill a critical role in the hospital. I don’t have to work with a scalpel to help take care of patients. Mail is my medium.”

Even without a scalpel, Arning is a renowned cutup. Few leave the mailroom without hearing a joke, witticism or pun, though ironically Arning himself reportedly never laughs. “I’m an inveterate joker, but I can’t laugh. I just smile,” he says with a straight face.

Arning thrives on making connections. Some colleagues call him Mr. Question as he’s always probing, always trying to find common ground or a topic for his next conversation. And he does it on the quick; interactions in the mailroom can be brief. “I speak in postcard,” Arning quips.

Kenn Arning and Halima Lojewski

After a cross-country move in 1978, he landed a job in Harborview’s mailroom and never left. (He’s also still in the same apartment as when he moved here from New Jersey. “One might say I’m stable,” he deadpans.)

The hospital, though, has changed a fair bit during his tenure. Doctors don’t offer patients cigarettes, for example, and patients can’t drink beer in their rooms. Technology has evolved, too. “I worked here 10 years before we got computers. I had to memorize everything. Consequently I’m really good at memorizing names. I know them all.”

Some things remain the same. Arning regularly gets to play detective and solve mail mysteries, one of his favorite parts of the job. Say a package arrives with an illegible addressee. How will it get where it’s supposed to go? Arning springs into action. He recently reached out to the ex-spouse of someone listed on a return address to solve a mystery.

Another treasured routine comes at the end of the day when Arning delivers packages and get-well cards to patients. On this particular afternoon he was taking flowers to a young boy in the burn unit. “It’s hard to see people in pain. But I’ve been here 40 years, and I had to get over that. I feel strong compassion for all the patients.”

“Once he retires – if he ever does – this mailroom will fall apart,” says Chris Robertson, a UW Medicine truck driver who has known Arning for 19 years. “There’s so much information in his head that can’t be categorized. We’ll probably have to change the entire system.”

Arning has no plans to leave.

“This is better than retirement,” he says. “I feel interconnected to the entire institution, and it’s endlessly interesting. I know what I do is important. I see that every day.”

A paper weight that reads Kenn Arning, Mail Clerk

Par Avion

Check out a slideshow of Kenn’s favorite photos from his frequent travels abroad.


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