They Found $2,394 … and Gave It Back
(Family Circle)

Tom Nichter had 75¢ in his pocket, not enough to feed his wife and child…”Please, can’t we just go in and look around?” Eleven-year-old Jason Nichter was pleading with his parents, Pauline and Tom, as they sat outside the Buena Park Mall in their car, piled high with the family’s belongings. It was 6 o’clock on Thursday evening, February 25, and the Southern California sky was just beginning to darken.

Tom, a wiry 44-year-old, was not in favor of the idea. He found it painful to see Jason’s eyes light up at the sight of the stores’ offerings—high-tech sneakers, baseball cards, electronic games—and then to have to tell his son, “Sorry, all you can do is look.” What’s the point of walking through a shopping mall, Tom remembers thinking that evening, when all you’ve got in your pocket is 75¢—and that has to cover dinner for three?

“Mom, please,” Jason persisted. Pauline, 47, found it hard to resist her son’s pleas. “We were at the lowest point in our lives that evening,” recalls Pauline, a pretty woman with a warm, friendly manner. “We were out of work, out of money, and had no place to live. We were pretty much out of hope.” If Jason could find some moments of pleasure in just looking at things, she reasoned…well, why not give him at least that?

After making sure their car was securely locked, the Nichters walked through the entrance to the brightly lighted shopping center. Jason headed first for the pet shop (“Someday, when we get to live in a house again, I want to have a dog,” he would frequently tell his mother), then crossed the mall to the Kay-Bee Toy & Hobby store. There, he ran up and down the aisles, directing his father’s attention first to one game, then to another.

Pauline waited at the front of the store, near the register. She was looking around idly when her gaze came to rest on a gray leather folder—like an oversize wallet—lying on top of a stack of games. She took another look and thought she saw money inside. It must be play money, Pauline remembers thinking as she picked up the wallet. Glancing more closely at its contents, she was startled to discover, Oh, my gosh, the money’s real!

There seemed to be $200 or $300 in cash inside, as well as credit cards. It had been so long since Pauline had seen that much money that she feared to do any further investigating. In the corridor outside the store, she showed the billfold to Tom and Jason. “Do you think this was meant for us?” she asked Tom, thinking briefly of the many ways they could use this small fortune. The next moment brought her back to reality, however: the money wasn’t theirs. If they gave in to temptation and kept it, what kind of example would they be setting for their son?

“We’d better turn this over to the authorities,” Tom said without hesitation.

The family looked around the mall for a security guard. Failing to locate one and finding the mall’s police substation closed, they drove to the Buena Park police station, a single-story building off a busy thoroughfare. Inside, behind the counter in the reception area, they found Sergeant Terry Branum, 46. The 6’4” officer, fair haired and blue eyed, was calm and competent-looking. He was talking to Jay Schermerhorn, a KNBC-TV cameraman who happened to be at the station to cover a story about a man who had killed several dogs.

“The family walked in nervously,” Sergeant Branum recalls. “Tom kind of hung back with Jason, while Pauline came forward and placed a wallet on the counter. ‘Here—we found this at the mall,’ she said. ‘I don’t even really know what’s in it.’ I said I’d check it for her.”

As a 22-year veteran of the Buena Park police force, Sergeant Branum has seen a lot. But he was still surprised by what he unearthed in the folds of the wallet’s several compartments—credit cards, a passport, a $1,500 plane ticket for a return flight to the Southwest Pacific island of New Caledonia, and $2,394 in cash.

Tom Nichter was floored by the sight of so much money. Slowly, haltingly, he began to let the officer in on the reality of the family’s existence, the fact that they were homeless. Tom had been looking in vain for a steady job (as a warehouse worker, a driver, a deliveryman, just about anything) for two years. A year earlier, Pauline’s warehouse job had ended too, when her division of a large national credit-card company was closed. Despite an excellent record, she had been unable to find work since.

The couple had applied for public assistance but learned they were ineligible because they owned a car. (Tom worried that a computer check might reveal that the car was unregistered; he and Pauline had been unable to keep up with the insurance payments. They were three and a half months behind in their car payments as well.)

For a while the Nichters had lived in a low-budget motel, at the single-occupant rate, until Pauline’s unemployment insurance ran out. Now all three were sharing one bed in a tiny room in the modest home of Pauline’s parents—an arrangement that was creating tension for everyone. Jason’s schoolwork had suffered. There was no place for him to do his homework. An energetic, outgoing youngster, he had become a loner. Sometimes, he would tell his teacher, “I don’t want anybody to bother me today. Just ask people to leave me alone.”

Cameraman Jay Schermerhorn stood by, taking in the incident. Now he turned to Sergeant Branum. “When you locate the wallet’s owner,” he said, “maybe we could do an interview.”

The sergeant wasted no time in phoning the Buena Park Mall. Yes, he was told, a man named Theas Yann had just come in to report a lost wallet.

It was the same name as on the passport. “Tell him to come down to the station,” Sergeant Branum said.

Twenty minutes later, a much-relieved and very grateful tourist redeemed his wallet and its contents. With the TV camera recording the scene, Yann thanked the Nichters profusely. (A nervous Pauline kept asking her son, “What do you think, Jason? Does my hair look all right?”) Yann did not offer them a reward. That night, while Californians watched the story on the local news, the Nichters were out eating hamburgers—thanks to a $3 gift from the police department.

Friday, as was her custom, reporter Erin Kelly of The Orange County Register, a local newspaper, placed a call to the Buena Park police to learn if there was anything newsworthy to report. Sergeant Branum took Kelly’s call. “Well, there was a good story here last night,” he said, and then proceeded to fill her in on the details.

“That’s a great story,” Kelly replied. ‘The whole paper is just dead bodies today, and I’d love some good news.”

Not only did the story make page one, it was also picked up by the wire services and circulated to media in this country and abroad. For a public worn down by reports of killings, massacres and mayhem, the Nichters’ story provided a welcome change. Theirs was the good deed heard ‘round the world.

“They touched a lot of people,” says Sergeant Branum matter-of-factly. His office grew busy fielding calls to the family from as close as neighboring La Palma and as far away as Toronto, London and Istanbul. One anonymous donor walked into the police station, asked how much money had been in the wallet, and quickly made out a check for $2,400. “They deserve at least that,” he said.

By Monday, mail began arriving at the Buena Park police station—so many letters that, according to Sergeant Branum, some days it took six people eight full hours just to open the envelopes.

Inside were prayers and good wishes, shared tales of difficult times, and contributions ranging from 50¢ to hundreds of dollars, all with the express hope of helping the family get back on its feet. Local businesses took up collections, dropping off cartons filled with everything from canned food to toiletries and paper towels. A local bedding store provided Jason with a mattress and box spring.

In the midst of all this, the national media descended. Tom, Pauline and Jason, who had struggled for a long time to keep others from knowing their problems, now found themselves being interviewed on CNN, on the Today show, on The Home Show. A local radio station, KNX, named the couple Citizens of the Week, awarding them round-trip air tickets to any destination within the United States. (Pauline has never flown; Tom took a plane trip once, in 1967, from Los Angeles to San Francisco.)

Unquestionably, the Nichters agree, the event that stands out most for them was a visit to the Crystal Cathedral in nearby Garden Grove, where they were guests of charismatic televangelist Dr. Robert Schuller. “We though we’d just be in the audience,” says Pauline, “but they called us to the front and thousands of people stood up for us. I kept thinking, What did we do to deserve all this? I know it sounds stupid, but I felt like I was in heaven.”

Back on earth, however, other good things were happening. Gerry Wallick, a realtor, read about the Nichters’ plight and offered them six months’ rent-free occupancy of an apartment in a complex she owns in Garden Grove. It was small—the family shared a bedroom—but it was an important first step toward a permanent home. (The Nichters have since moved to a two-bedroom apartment in another part of Orange County.) “We were used to eating in fast-food restaurants,” says Tom. “Then one night we opened a can of chili. It was the first time since we became homeless that we could eat in. And I tell you, that chili was just delicious! Not as good as the food Pauline used to cook,” he hastens to add, “but we really liked it.”

Pauline doesn’t have much time for cooking nowadays. She’s found a job as product-receiving manager in a raw materials warehouse at Hyde & Hyde, a food packaging and marketing company. She drives a forklift and is responsible for unloading incoming merchandise, storing everything in its proper place, and making sure that purchase-order papers match up with the actual merchandise delivered. It’s demanding work, requiring long hours—and Pauline couldn’t be happier.

Neither could her employer Islajean (Jeanie) Hyde. Dwarfed by cartons piled high with popcorn, candy and multi-grain cereal, Hyde says, “The thing that brought me together with Pauline is the fact that she’s honest. Employee thievery is a real problem nowadays. When I read Pauline’s story in the newspaper, I said to myself, ‘I think I’ve really found somebody I can trust. I’m going to do my best to see if I can get her to work with us.'

“So I called Pauline,” she continues, “and we got together. God smiled on me when He gave me Pauline.”

Once the story broke, Tom too, received a number of job offers. Some were for skilled positions—computer technician, diesel mechanic—for which he is not trained. Others were from all the way across the country, and the Nichters do not want to relocate—their roots are here. Tom has always wanted to drive a truck. “I’d love to get into a training program,” he says, “but I’ll take anything. I’m concerned that some jobs are not being offered to me just because people think the salary is too low. But I feel, ‘Make the offer. Try me.’” (At press time, Tom was still unemployed.)

There also are people who read about the public’s generosity and think that Tom, Pauline and Jason are set for life, that they have no need to work. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Pauline. The Nichters never tallied the goods and cash received, but they did have someone advise them about investing, and they had lots of obligations that had to be met. “Our big priority was to repay family members who had lent us money over the years,” Pauline says. “Then we had to catch up on our bills. You’d never believe how many bills there were! And we owed back taxes. We also want to assure a future for our son—we want Jason to be able to go to college. That’s our goal.”

The couple’s other goals are equally modest. First is a job for Tom. Next, they want a good refrigerator. They speak longingly about a two-door refrigerator they once owned, which they had to abandon when they were forced to leave their last apartment.

“We’re getting a second chance at life,” Pauline declares. “One thing I’ve learned is never to take good fortune for granted. When you’re working, you think nothing of going out to buy something—maybe not a car, but an extra blouse. You don’t think about being homeless. But you could lose your job tomorrow. Homelessness can happen to anyone. We hope we’ll be able to invest our money wisely and keep working, so we’ll never be homeless again.”

The Nichters are amazed at their good fortune and absolutely overwhelmed by the goodness of people. “If we could afford it,” says Pauline, “we’d take out ads in newspapers across the country and tell people, ‘Thank you for all you’ve done for us.’ We are so grateful.”

“After all,” says Tom, “what did we do? We didn’t do anything special. We only did the right thing.”