Lost and found stories: A life’s savings; saving a life

a collection of items that might populate a lost-and-found box: a cell phone, keys, a wallet, a hat, a memory stick, gum, glasses, a backpack; and a trumpet, an item specific to the story below

Photo illustration by Tim Schoon.

Few people know what it feels like to hold thousands of dollars in one’s hands. We’re talking about cold, hard cash burning the palms of your hands. Even lottery jackpot winners have to stand before cameras holding some oversized check before clutching any real dough.

Julie Yenter, custodian II with University of Iowa Building and Landscape Services, is someone who recently experienced that rare feeling. Well, more or less, anyway. The bills she held weren’t hers—they were discovered on the job—and technically they weren’t dollars, since they were foreign currency.

And so begins one of many “lost and found” stories involving Building and Landscape Services staff, stories that often have happy endings.

Yenter was going through her routine cleaning 106 Gilmore Hall—cleaning chalkboards, washing tables, collecting trash—when she noticed a wallet underneath a desk. This in itself was a bit of a ho-hum moment for Yenter; this sort of find is a pretty ordinary sight during her travels through university classrooms.

“Things like wallets, cell phones, these things fall out of pockets under desks all the time,” Yenter says. “It doesn’t faze us anymore.”

The moment of surprise came when Yenter opened the wallet in search of identification—and found a lot of money. A LOT of money.

“My eyes got as big as dinner plates, I’m sure,” Yenter says. “I was surprised anyone would carry that kind of cash.”

The money belonged to an international student who had arrived in Iowa City just days earlier, and had yet to deposit her nest egg in a financial institution. Yenter estimates the bills must have equaled thousands of dollars (without a currency conversion chart in hand, she doesn’t have an exact figure). She immediately called her supervisor, as she didn’t want to carry that much money anywhere.

“I know what my initial reaction must have looked like, because my boss made the same face when he arrived and saw that amount of money,” Yenter says.

The supervisor called the UI Department of Public Safety, wanting someone to come pick up the discovered goods (he wasn’t comfortable transporting that kind of money, either). The student was contacted, and soon a life’s savings were back in hand.

Yenter never met the student; likewise, the student doesn’t know who found the wallet.

“It’s possible we pass each other a couple of times a day in that building,” Yenter says. “I was glad she was able to get it back. She could have been cleaned out.”

Finding treasures great and small
The Building and Landscape Services staff run across lost items great and small. When they come across items of obvious significance or value, they do everything they can to return these goods to their owners.

In one case, a groundskeeper rescued a trumpet from the middle of Park Road; thanks to a West Music tag, it found its way back in the hands of a grateful musician. Another instance featured not an inanimate object but a person in need. A groundskeeper who works the health campus came upon a woman who fell after having a seizure. The staff member used his Gator vehicle to transport the woman to an emergency room.

And there’s the situation that resembled the story in the 1994 movie With Honors. In that movie, a Harvard man named Monty experiences computer failure, jeopardizing his thesis project. With his lone printed copy in hand, Monty sprints across icy sidewalks to get this valuable document photocopied. Monty slips, sending his thesis through a grate and into the hands of Simon the unkempt squatter, who refuses to return the paper without some quid pro quo. (And there were some valuable life lessons taught, and some romance, and so on.)

The UI story is a little less dramatic: a custodial services manager found a flash drive with a student’s dissertation on it. Rather than seeking a king’s ransom for the data, he opened the file, found the student’s name, and got the memory stick back to its rightful owner.

A life-or-death discovery
The UI campus has had quite a mild winter this year—certainly we’ve seen nothing like the blizzard conditions that blew through in early February 2011. Many employees weren’t able to report to campus for duty; Building and Landscape Services was no exception.

This forced custodial services supervisor Joshua Smith to cover some ground in Becker Communication Studies Building that evening. With the wind whipping and snow blowing sideways outside, Smith went to work cleaning the rooms and halls inside.

That’s when he heard knocking.

He went to an exterior door to find a young man, disoriented, experiencing the onset of hypothermia.

“This young gentleman had no coat on, and he was wearing shorts,” Smith says. “It kind of looked like he was wearing white pants, given all the snow that had stuck to his legs.”

The man had just finished up some recreational activity at one of the university’s facilities, and was heading back to his residence hall. The blustery conditions had been underestimated.

“I brought him inside—normally we won’t let anyone into locked spaces, but in this situation, what else could I do?—and brushed off as much snow as I could,” Smith says. “The guy was beet-red and beyond the point of shivering; it was more like convulsing.

“After drying him as best I could, I brought him into the men’s restroom, positioned him between the two hand dryers, aimed the air chutes at him, and kept hitting the buttons.”

Eventually the young man’s condition improved. Someone was contacted to come get the man—no easy task, given the weather.

“Had I not filled in that night, and not been where I was at that point, it’s hard to say how it would have played out,” Smith says when asked about the severity of the situation. “At the time I wasn’t panicked; I do remember thinking, but not saying aloud, ‘Didn’t your mother teach you to wear a coat?’”

If the question were anything more than a variation on a common expression, it could have been asked of the student’s mother when she called Building and Landscape Services to express her gratitude for saving her son’s life.

“His mother was as happy as anyone that I opened that door,” Smith says.