This is another installment of “Into the Archives,” a series that looks back on stories from the Belleville News-Democrat archives.
In August 1974, the same month President Richard Nixon resigned in a national scandal, Jimmy M. Connor, 10, was picking up trash in the yard around his family’s home on Maryville Road in Collinsville. He found a paper bag containing diapers and $13,000 in a ditch.
Connor gave the money to the police, sparking a nationwide outpouring of support from people showing their appreciation for his honesty and integrity.
In a 2017 interview, Connor, 53, said in some ways his discovery didn’t feel like 43 years ago.
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“I clearly remember jumping in the ditch to pick up the bag,” Connor said.
At first, he thought the money was fake because there was so much of it. The $13,000 was in $20 and $10 denominations. “I thought, ‘maybe it’s Monopoly money,’” Connor said.
When he realized it was real, Connor ran into the house and, according to his mother, Jeanine Connor, he shouted: “We’re rich, we’re rich. Now I can get a new bike.”
In a phone conversation last week, Jeanine Connor said she wondered “what on earth” her son had discovered.
“He was always bringing home trinkets, a turtle or something he found in the road,” Jeanine Connor said.
Jeanine Connor found her son sitting on the floor throwing handfuls of money into the air.
“I was flabbergasted,” Jeanine Connor said.
For weeks, Jimmy Connor had stood outside Kennedy’s Bikes and Antiques in Collinsville, dreaming about owning the jet black, Aero Bee Avenger that sat in the shop window.
“It cost something like $88,” Connor said. He had about $14 saved.
Even though he wanted that bike, Connor knew he had to do the right thing and give the money back to the people it belonged to.
His mother, Jeanine Connor, thought someone must have robbed the bank near their home.
“The money was wrapped in packets,” Jeanine Connor said. “I had never seen money wrapped that way before.”
She called Maryville police to report what her son had found. The amount of money was so large, Maryville police immediately notified the Illinois State Police.
According to the inflation calculator on the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics website, Connor’s 1974 discovery would be like finding about $63,644 today.
Always do the right thing and give it back. You don’t know how it could affect somebody.
Robert Carpenter, the current Maryville chief of police, said finding that much money is “very unusual.”
Carpenter has been with the Maryville police for 14 years and in law enforcement for 27 years. Since he’s been with Maryville police, “nothing even close” to that amount has been turned in.
“Occasionally people turn in wallets,” Carpenter said in a phone interview last week. “You know the person who found it was honest if the money is still there. But we’re talking about 20, 40, 60 or 90 bucks, not thousands.”
In 1974, the Illinois State Police arrived in Collinsville to investigate Connor’s find and observed a couple with a baby searching the parking lot and ditches at the Bo-Jon Inn, across the street from Connor’s home.
According to an Illinois State Police press release from Sept. 4, 1974, the couple, Jose A. Gandaria and his wife, Juanita Gandaria of Mathis, Texas, were taking their son, Hector, to Chicago for a neurological exam.
In order to raise the money needed for their 17-month-old son’s medical treatment, the Gandarias sold “truck tractors” and other personal items. As they were leaving the Bo-Jon Inn, Juanita Gandaria put the paper bag with diapers and their life savings on top of the car.
She forgot the bag was there and the couple drove away.
According to police reports, officials suggested that the Gandarias convert the cash to a cashier’s check at the First Bank of Maryville to prevent further mishaps. They did so.
During the course of the investigation to find the owners of the paper bag, police learned that Connor had wanted to buy a new bicycle with the money.
In a letter to Connor dated Aug. 28, 1974, Emil J. Toffant, captain commander of the Illinois State Police District 11, wrote: “It is my feeling that your honesty demonstrated in this matter reflects a high degree of integrity and moral courage in your character.”
The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 41 and the Mississippi Valley Division of the Illinois Police Association split the cost of the bike and presented it in a surprise ceremony to Connor on Sept. 4, 1974, along with a framed Illinois State Police patch, Cardinals baseball tickets and a small amount of money for bike accessories.
Bill DeMestri, chief photographer for the BND, took a picture of Connor at the ceremony with the “$13,000 bicycle.”
Connor still has the Aero Bee Avenger. “I plan on having it restored,” Connor said.
The BND article from Sept. 5, 1974 about Connor, addresses the fact that he shares a similar name with Jimmy Connors, the famous tennis player from the Belleville area: “Move over Jimmy Connors — tennis star — you’ve got company: Jimmy Connor — money finder and honesty hero.”
After Connor was featured in the Belleville News-Democrat, Life Magazine, The National Enquirer, The Collinsville Herald, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Charlotte Observer and many others, he began to receive letters from readers around the world including England and Puerto Rico, and from across the United States.
“Every day letters would arrive in stacks, wrapped with rubber bands,” Connor said. “I was opening letters for months.”
Jeanine Connor said her son’s discovery had “struck a chord” with people.
“Our mailman, Francis, would come down the drive honking his horn to hand the letters to Jimmy. He’d say things like, ‘Boy, you got a bunch of them today,’” Jeanine Connor said.
They were addressed to: “The Honorable Jimmy Connor,” “Honest Jimmy Connor,” or simply, “Jimmy Connor, Collinsville, Illinois.” Some included small amounts of cash.
“I was overwhelmed,” Jimmy Connor said.
Robert A. Jones, House representative in the North Carolina General Assembly, praised Connor’s actions in a letter dated Aug. 30, 1974. He wrote: “In these difficult days of rising prices and with so much dishonesty among our government officials including a President and Vice President, your action stands out as a fine example for everyone to follow and should not go unrewarded. … Honesty is, and always has been and forever will be the best policy, and I hope you receive enough money to buy the finest bike in town.”
In his “dishonesty among our government officials” remark, Rep. Jones was referring to President Richard Nixon’s resignation on Aug. 8, 1974, because of the Watergate scandal.
Connor received a large packet of letters written in cursive from the entire 1974 sixth-grade class of Franklin Elementary School in Belleville.
One of the students, Gena Griebel wrote: “You and your parents did the right thing. I would have done the same. How does it feel to have that much money in your hands?”
Kenny Freeman, also of Franklin Elementary, wrote: “That was a nice thing for you to do — returning the $13,000 dollars. I don’t think I would have done that if I were you.”
Connor said the letters mean a great deal to him now. Not all of the feedback Connor received in 1974 was positive.
“There were people who told me I did the wrong thing. Some of my classmates said I was stupid and dumb for not keeping it,” Connor said. “There’s always negative people. That’s always going to happen. But the positive far outnumbered the negative.”
If he had it to do all over again, Connor said he wouldn’t change a thing. He counsels others who find money or purses to do the same.
“Always do the right thing and give it back,” Connor said. “You don’t know how it could affect somebody.”
Because of his positive interactions with authorities, Connor said he dreamed of becoming a police officer. He earned a degree in criminal justice from Belleville Area College, now Southwestern Illinois College, and completed an internship with the Illinois State Police.
His plans were derailed when, on May 30, 1986, a few weeks after graduating college, Connor was stabbed while working at a Kroger grocery store, that has since closed, in the Crossroads Shopping Center off of U.S. 50 in Fairview Heights.
A BND article from June 1, 1986, reported: “About 9:45 p.m. Friday, the employee, a Collinsville resident whom police declined to name, saw a man pushing a shopping cart containing a VCR out of the store. When the employee stopped the man, the suspect cut the employee’s arm with a knife, then fled with the VCR.”
Some of the muscles, nerves and arteries in Connor’s arm were severed. Connor said the injury prevented him from joining the police.
“It shattered his lifetime dream,” said Jeanine Connor.
Jeanine Connor said her son then pursued a career in car sales. She credits Connor’s success to his honest, straight-forward manner and talent for remembering details.
Connor currently works for the Auffenberg Automotive Group at its multiple area locations.
“I’m a little bit prejudiced, of course, but I’m proud of him,” Jeanine Connor said.
“I just believe that everyone has their time in the sun,” Connor said. “Put good things out there, do the best you can and things will work out for you.”
Heidi Wiechert is a former librarian and current newsroom assistant who maintains the BND archive files.
Read other installments of the “Into the Archives” series