The Value of a Half Dollar

by Judith Cameron Wagner
Texas, USA

My Dad, one of only two physicians in a four-county area, worked at least 18 hours a day, seven days a week. Twice monthly, while the other doctor covered the practice, he had free time from Saturday noon to 6:00 a.m. Sunday. Our family trekked one Saturday monthly over winding, potholed roads to visit grandparents. Our night return trip seemed endless.

Often, after early supper at grandmother’s table, we three children were dropped at a movie so the grownups could indulge in adult conversation. When the movie ended, mom and dad picked us up for the long drive home.

One evening in the mid-1940s, the privilege of buying movie tickets was finally given me, the youngest. The ticket lady smiled broadly as I announced my important position, and said I did a fine job! Smugly, I pocketed the change and led my older brothers into the theater.

The Value of a Half Dollar Late that night, almost home, with everyone else asleep, Dad interrupted my chattering to ask for the ticket change. I carefully counted it by the dashboard light, and as I finished, he turned the car around! Why?!?

I had received 50 cents too much change; we would return it.

All the way back, when we were so close to home? This late? Couldn’t we just mail it, or take it next time?

Yes, dad explained, it would be honest to send or take it back. But although that would be easiest for us, the ticket booth lady must account for *all* money received. With money missing, she might be reprimanded or worse, lose her job, so we couldn’t delay.

I fell asleep long before our car pulled up in front of the theater, just after closing. Dad woke me, saying that along with privilege came responsibility: it was my task to return the money.

I walked slowly to the ticket booth, smugness evaporated. She was there, counting money, face wet with tears. Timidly, I reached up, put the half-dollar on the counter, “…too much change… daddy said…turned around…”.

She smiled again, quickly wiped her face with her hands, and left the booth to hug me. She walked to the car to thank dad. If the money hadn’t been found she would have lost her job, her family’s only income.

Suddenly, my self-imposed embarrassment at “failing” my important task was transformed into a real understanding of how our actions may affect others in ways not apparent to us. I was proud of my daddy, and told him so.

Now, almost 60 years later, I realize how tired he was and how tempting it must have been to just go on home and get a bit of sleep before resuming his duties. But, “the right thing” was at the core of his beliefs.

Dad died while taking care of yet another stranger, but he left a legacy of personal examples of honesty, integrity and responsibility to be absorbed and passed along by his children, grandchildren, and now, great-grandchildren. His half-dollar philosophy lives on.

Originally published as HeroicStories #625 on July 22, 2005

18 thoughts on “The Value of a Half Dollar”

  1. Wow, what a good story, especially when the lady’s job was at risk. $.50 may not seem like much now, but I’m sure it was back then.

    I wish all people had such integrity today. And I wish more people supported it.

    My daughter came out with a candy bar she hadn’t paid for, and I had her take it back in to return it. She didn’t want to, and eventually burst into tears as I walked in with her.

    The cashier said it was okay and let her keep it. It upset me that someone undermined my lesson on stealing by giving it to her. (She’s made a lot bad choice since then… sigh)

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    • Unfortunately, in today’s time, the value of a lesson like that is lost on so many because the attitude is that it’s just a candy bar and the shops expect shop lifting of those “small” items. Also, unfortunate is the fact that our society has moved to an attitude of “what ever I can get for free”

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      • I think that saying “society” has moved to that attitude is unwarranted. Yes, it’s what we hear about in the news and such, but as I’ve been saying all along this is exactly why HeroicStories exists and is so desperately needed: to remind us that what we read in the news is NOT the norm. That most people are basically good and honest and kind hearted.

        It’s somewhat sad to see the actions of the clerk (allowing the candy bar to be taken) seen as something wrong while in reality it was probably more of an act of misguided kindness, not wanting to make things worse for the perpetrator.

        Look for the good. More often than not, it’s there.

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        • “Misguided kindness” was probably accurate. I wonder if Mom, in that situation, could have helped the clerk to see the lesson the daughter needed to learn.

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  2. That could have been my Dad and I so much appreciate him and my Mom both for their unfailing integrity and for their kindness to others. I’ve seen so many examples of this kind and I’m thankful to have had this kind of example before me as I grew up. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  3. What a wonderful example of teaching your children the right thing. I’m sure there are still things of this sort going on today, but we surely don’t hear much about the good things. Thank you for all the heroic stories that show up in my inbox.

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  4. This story is like a life lesson to me, in that either you live life by your conscious and morals as many of us were brought up to do, where you seemingly follow your heart as to what you believe or know to be the right thing to do, or you don’t.

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  5. What a wonderful lesson about honesty and empathy.
    Fifty cents was a lot of money in 1940, the year I was born. My dad told me that he made 25 cents an hour at the time, but took a new job that paid 35 cents, because he needed more to support a wife and two children. (He told me this in the 1950s, when I was complaining that most of my friends got fifty cents an hour for baby-sitting, but I rarely earned more than thirty-five.) I’m sure many people made less wages than he did. Congress had recently passed a minimum wage law, but it only applied to jobs in interstate commerce.For comparison, the minimum wage in the 1960s was a dollar an hour, and that didn’t cover all jobs.

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  6. Wonderful story. I think you should go to Facebook with Heroic Stories. Would make sharing and passing along the stories really easy. And I’m sure you would get many submissions too.

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  7. What a powerful story, and how sad that it seems part of a bygone era. But the very fact that it has touched people’s hearts shows that there is hope yet, so thank you Leo, for keeping these alive. I will forward this one to all my friends.

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  8. What a wonderful reminder! I only wish that more people were still like this today! Had an incident at a fast food place the other day where not one but two of my older friends were in one lane and were given too much change! Being older and with a very fine reputation both gentlemen pointed out the mistake and gave the extra change back but not without some hesitation on the cashier since her “machine” said they were to have that amount! Also, never give a cashier a penny after they have already rung up the amount to give you back as they DO NOT know how to handle it. I just wish we weren’t so reliant on machines so much for everything and still had the human touch as in the story!

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    • I was in a card store at Christmas time and there was a brand new clerk in the shop, having been left alone for a bit. He rang up my cards and couldn’t figure out the change thing so he just handed me a wad of singles and a fistful of change. I stopped him and I showed him how to count back change. It was like I had done magic right in front of him! I had him count it back to me twice to make sure the lesson stuck. It’s a lost art, I tell ya.

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  9. We had a young maid help from Orissa India. Just four years ago, when at a shopping mall, she picked up a 20-cent coin which had been dropped by someone and ran after the party to return it. When they asked her to keep it, she refused it and walked away. Translated into her home currency, twenty cents still has some significant purchasing power. While honesty is to some degree an inherent trait, the seeds can, in fact, should, be sown into children from an early age.

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  10. It doesn’t matter whether the store takes the overage or not. What matters is whether you are honest enough to return it. The lesson is found in your actions not those of others. Keeping your integrity intact is the most important thing, you know you were honest and you can keep your head high because of it.

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  11. Great story. Tomorrow my wife is leading a prayer and worship service in church and her message deals precisely with always doing the right thing, even if it means more work or difficulties for us! This story is a perfect example of a situation in which taking the easiest road could have caused suffering to a third party. Keep going!!!!!

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  12. This story is similar to an experience I had a week ago at our local vet’s office. The girl was new and was uncertain about how to write up the order (we were boarding our two cats for a few days). The other assistant showed her where the list of charges were in the book ($10 / day) and said to subtract a dollar per day because both cats would be boarded together. The girl started to charge us $9/day, but I said that it was incorrect. I then pointed out that it was $10 per cat per day, so that would be $19 / day for both cats. She was very appreciative and said that at first she thought I was going to complain that it was too much.

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