Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Wallet

(The following is a true story. My friend Barry McCalister sent me a Facebook note late one night early in 2010 to tell me about a message he'd received from a stranger with a truly amazing tale.)

It was like a bell went off in his head, waking him up. The first thing Ronnie Ragan said to himself that day was, “Find the wallet.”

It was April of 2010. Ronnie hadn’t thought about the wallet for at least a couple of years. But he went upstairs in his house in Madison, Tennessee and started going through boxes until he located a tan, leather woman’s wallet, closed with a zipper. The wallet was showing signs of age – it was at least 60 years old. Inside were several black and white photos - a group of sailors, what looked like school portraits - all from the 1940s or ‘50s. There were also some pay-check stubs, various receipts, a letter from Aunt Billy passing along regards from Uncle Arden, a Social Security card and a driver’s license. In a snap-sealed coin pocket was $1.85 in change – a 1923 Liberty silver dollar, plus three quarters and two nickles minted in the 1940s. According to the Social Security card and driver’s license, the wallet had belonged to Joan McCalister. But neither the license nor any of the other papers included an address.

Ronnie had been trusted with the wallet by his late grandfather, Bill “Pappy” Reece. Pappy had been an auto parts salesman for the S&S Sales Company. He lived in Madison, Tennessee, but his sales route frequently took him into Western Kentucky and Southern Indiana. On one of his swings through his territory in 1949 or 1950, he stopped at a store in Cadiz, Kentucky, about 85 miles northwest of Nashville. He found the wallet in the store’s parking lot.

Many people might have simply taken the money and left the wallet. A dollar eighty-five might not sound like much, but it’s the equivalent of a little more than $17 by today’s standards. At the very least, it would have provided a nice meal.

But that wouldn’t have been in character for Pappy. He wanted to get the wallet and everything in it back to its owner. Cadiz is the Trigg County seat, but at that time it was still a few births shy of 1,300 people. It was a small town and he figured someone would surely know Joan McCalister. He went from store to store and asked several people, however nobody could provide him any leads.

Among the items in the wallet were pay stubs for Robert McCalister. No home address was listed, but the company on the stub was Servell in Evansville, Indiana. When Pappy’s travels next took him to Evansville, he tried to track down Robert by going to Servell. But Robert had recently left the company and there was no forwarding address.

So, Pappy came home and put the wallet in a drawer and there it stayed until the early 1990s when he brought it to Ronnie’s attention.

“I started doing family genealogy and I was researching these different branches of my family and I was having some luck finding some people. (Pappy) mentioned to me one day, ‘I’ve got this old wallet I found when I was on the road. Do you think you’d have any luck finding the lady, because if you would, I’d like to return this to her.’”

It had been more than 40 years since Pappy had found the wallet. Ronnie did the best he could at the time to locate Joan McCalister, but the trail was too cold. However, he pledged to Pappy, “I’ll keep the wallet and one of these days if I can ever find (the McCalisters) or their children, I promise you I’ll get the wallet back to them.”

Pappy passed away at the age of 95 in April, 2008. Then, almost two years to the day later, the wallet flashed into Ronnie’s consciousness for the first time in nearly a decade.

“I brought it to work with me and started searching obituaries through Ancestry.com and Google.” He soon found an obit for Robert McCalister who died in 2007, then one for Joan, who had died in 2003. He noted the names of the children, then went on Facebook and found a listing for the youngest son, Barry McCalister. “I saw Barry’s name and his friends included an Adams McCalister and I knew his mom’s maiden name was Adams. Then I saw a Billy McCalister, which I knew from the obituary was his brother. So I thought, ‘This has got to be the guy.’ And then when I saw that on Mother’s Day he wrote about how much he missed his mom, I said, ‘This is why I woke up thinking about this. This is the guy who’s supposed to get the wallet.’”

Just after the Memorial Day holiday in 2010, Ronnie sent a Facebook friend request to Barry McCalister, with a short note mentioning he had something that might belong to him.

“Well, naturally, I think it’s a scam,” said Barry, who lives in Madisonville, Kentucky, where his parents had moved in 1957. “Then this incredible story opens up and the he turns out to be just a super-nice guy.”

Ronnie sent him another note explaining why he contacted him. Not only did he describe what he had, but he also included a photo of the wallet and all the treasures it contained. Barry said that he was so overwhelmed he had to have his wife, Karla, come in and type the response for him. “When I saw the picture and the contents, I just started shaking. It was like a little time capsule.”

He said when his mom lost the wallet, she would have been 19 or 20 and his dad around 25. They would have been married for about four years and had just given birth to the first of their three sons, Billy. The McCalisters at that time were living in Cobb, which was 10 miles from Cadiz.

“Mom was a housewife. She was probably out shopping with a baby in her arms and dropped the wallet and didn’t realize it until later. (Middle brother) Mike and I laughed about it, because first of all, I bet she didn’t tell daddy that she lost the wallet. Then Billy said, ‘I bet she didn’t tell daddy she had that kind of money, either.’ That would have been walking money back in 1950. I guarantee that was kept a secret.”

Ronnie packed up the wallet and mailed it to the McCalister family. Barry kept the wallet in a box, waiting until the entire family got together at Thanksgiving.

“We were sitting around the table and went through all of it,” Barry said. “There were a lot of emotions there.”

Among the items they pulled from the wallet was a 1949 bill from a Caldwell County Kentucky hospital for the delivery of oldest brother, Billy. Barry said, “Billy was a little disappointed when we pulled the bill out and he found out that all he was worth in 1949 was $149. He caught some hell over that one.”

Barry said that his sister-in-law Patti took all the items in the wallet, digitized them and gave copies to all the family members. Mike and Patti McCalisters' daughter, Ann-Michael, who is Joan and Robert McCalisters' only granddaughter, was given the wallet. It’s locked in a safe, with all the contents it held when Joan dropped it and when Pappy Reece found it more than 60 years ago.

“I think Pappy knew that the wallet made it home,” said Ronnie. “I’m one of those people that believes those on the other side know what you’re doing and maybe even help you in doing it. I’m not so sure that when I woke up that morning that that wasn’t Pappy prodding me, saying, ‘Hey son, don’t forget the wallet.’”


Anonymous said...

I'm Ronnie's cousin, the first granddaughter to Pappy. It is an amazing but very true story that shows the rare kindness that so often goes unnoticed in our world. My grandfather had quite a personality, that is missed. Being a child of the depression, he also placed value in almost everything, so it is not surprising to me that he would have kept something of value that belonged to someone else in hopes of returning it. He was also stubborn that way...determined! Ronnie sent me this link to your story. Thanks for brining me a "happy Pappy" thought for the night.
- Emily Hunton
Murfreesboro, TN

Anonymous said...

Great story Steve. Even more meaningful because I know the McC's