As dear as pennies, as near as stars

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Having just returned from a "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" weekend getting home from Atlanta, I'm digging again into my vast trove of Christmas columns to relocate my holiday spirit. This one first ran on Dec. 8, 2010, which was a time of great uncertainty. Kind of like the time we're in now. I've updated it slightly. 

These are dark times, and it's easy to find cause for concern. Listening to the news on NPR lately is enough to send a person spiraling into depression. People are suffering. We know this, even when we aren't faced with evidence.

Recently, though, I pulled the evidence from my pocket. Each night I take the day's accumulated change out and put it in containers on my dresser. Pennies in an old cocoa can, quarters in an old coffee can, and dimes and nickels in an old mayonnaise jar.

After several decades of this nightly ritual, I've become adept at recognizing older coins on sight — the patina of age and all that. Usually the older coins date back only as far as the 1960s (though that's still a half century). For a moment I contemplate what was happening during that year and where I was. Then they go into their respective bins. Very, very rarely, I'll find a really old coin — from the 1950s or even the '40s. I leave those out to show people. Over the past three years or so, I've collected maybe a dozen.

So it doesn't happen often. 

One night a few weeks back, three of the four pennies in my pocket looked old. The back side is a dead give-away. Instead of the Lincoln Memorial, you see "One Cent" flanked by shafts of wheat. People call them "wheat pennies." The change to the Lincoln Memorial occurred in 1959. 

These were wheat pennies. Looking at the dates, my eyes widened: 1934, 1938 and 1945.

This kind of thing doesn't happen by coincidence. Somebody must have been breaking up a coin collection looking for money. It could have been a kid, I suppose, raiding his older brother's collection, but I doubt it. I saw it as a sign of someone who has insufficient disposable income to meet great need. 

If so, it's fitting that the dates roughly correspond to the Great Depression, of which there are ominous echoes around the world at the moment.

At any rate, a reason to worry.

Evidence of the economic downturn can also be seen in the rising number of families using the Food Pantry of Oak Park-River Forest and those enrolling in the annual Holiday Food and Gift Basket Program, run by a dedicated corps of local volunteers and benefitting from a generous corps of local donors. 

Charitable neighbors "adopt" a family, then shop for them and drop off the wrapped presents, which are delivered by volunteer drivers — many of them from the Oak Park Police Department — two Saturdays before Christmas. Wednesday Journal has adopted a couple of families each year for the 26 years I've been here. My colleagues and I sign up to buy for one member of a family. We're given the age, gender, clothing size and a wish list. 

This year I signed up for a 13-year-old boy who asked for "books about stars." Maybe I'm jaded, but I assumed by "stars" he meant the shining lights of sports or Hollywood. Fortunately, before running out and buying biographies of the celebrities du jour, I decided to ask the program's coordinators for a clarification. 

Turns out, he wanted books on astronomy. In fact, he also asked for a telescope, which was too big ticket for me, but Adler Planetarium heard about the request and donated one for him.

With the help of Rachel at the Book Table, I found several books about stargazing (the celestial kind) and threw in a book on planets for good measure.

You never know. Every year, I can't help hoping my gift might change some kid's life, even in a small way. And even if he doesn't become a famous astronomer, maybe he'll be inspired by the fact that people he'll never meet once upon a time encouraged his interests — and reinforced the notion that his dreams are worth pursuing.

As Oscar Wilde put it: We're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Keep looking, kid. It puts you ahead of a lot of people who might be too busy congratulating themselves on how "fortunate" they are.

And you give all of us a reason to hope.


Postscript: I'm still wondering about that kid, I guess, because if he was 13 in 2010, then he's 19 today. I hope he's in college somewhere studying a subject that captivates him as much as astronomy did then. But even if he's no longer using that telescope, I hope he still has stars in his eyes.

I hope all of you do, too. 

Keep an eye out for the star that beckons us.


Reader Comments

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Mary Kay O'Grady  

Posted: December 22nd, 2016 8:57 PM

Loved this, Ken.

Martin A. Berg from Oak Park  

Posted: December 22nd, 2016 6:28 PM

Thanks for this, Ken. Puts everything in perspective, which is what the holiday season (which I call Christmas) is all about. And loved seeing the photo of the "wheatie" penny (which is what I call them)!

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