Mark J. Price

Harriet Morris was having trouble making ends meet.

The 42-year-old Cuyahoga Falls woman, a divorced mother raising three sons, had $1.35 in her purse, $2 in her checking account and $1 in her savings account.

Although she earned $270 a month as a keypunch operator at Roadway Express in Akron, recent illnesses and medical expenses had taken a toll on family finances. She was worried about feeding the boys, paying the bills and making the rent at 604 Francis Ave.

“I thought things couldn’t get any worse,” she admitted later. “I had almost decided everything was against me.”

Then one night in 1964, her luck changed.

She was in her bedroom about 9:30 p.m. when she heard a commotion down the hallway. Her son David, 16, was running around, excited about something.

“Mom! Mom!” he yelled. “Look at all this money!”

Harriet rushed to her son’s room and froze in disbelief. A small fortune in currency was spread across the bed next to a dusty brown suitcase.

David pointed to the closet and explained that he found the suitcase under loose floorboards while retrieving a fallen ring that had rolled through a crack. He pulled the bag from the secret compartment, realized it wasn’t empty and flung it open to see what was inside.

He and his brothers, Donald, 13, and Paul, 8, had heard adventure tales about hidden treasure but didn’t expect to find one in their home.

Harriet Morris owned only one dress. She had a car that needed repairs. Her sons needed winter coats.

Oh, how she would have loved to spend that money.

Instead, she stuffed the cash back in the suitcase and called police to report finding “$3,000 or $4,000 that isn’t mine.” Then she drove to the station and turned over the money. How many people would have done the same thing in her situation?

“I couldn’t go to sleep after that,” she told the Beacon Journal. “I walked the floor all night. I need the money and I hoped it would be mine.”

Harriet learned the next day that her estimate was way off. The suitcase actually contained $21,259 in small bills (nearly $163,000 today).

It also held a clue to the original owner. The name Joseph Calcagno was found on an envelope.

Officers counted the cash and returned it to Harriet, who put it in a safety deposit box at First National Bank on the advice of her attorney Orval Hoover, the former law director of Cuyahoga Falls.

“My guess is there will be several parties who’ll contact us,” Hoover told the Beacon Journal. “The legal rights are questionable at the moment, and it will be a question for the courts to decide in event someone makes a formal claim.”

The national media seized on the story. Harriet and David were featured in newspapers across the country and their photograph appeared in Time magazine.

Landlord Thomas LoCascio, an assistant manager at the A&P store in Midway Plaza, lived next door to the Morrises on Francis Avenue and filed a legal claim to the money because it was found on his property.

LoCascio bought the house for $7,000 two years earlier from Nunzio Calcagno of Oakland, Calif., who had inherited it. Nunzio’s father, Antonino Calcagno, and uncle Joseph Calcagno had lived together there for decades.

Joseph, a gardener for the city of Cuyahoga Falls, owned the house from 1928 until his death in 1957 at age 78. He willed the estate to his brother, Antonino, a former groundskeeper at Breath­nach Country Club, who died in 1961 at age 85.

Nunzio, who traveled to Ohio to claim the money, said his father and uncle were penny pinchers, and like many people who lost money during the Great Depression, had a mistrust of banks.

“They were still like in the old country,” Nunzio said. “They bought day-old bread at half price. They grew their own grapes and made their own wine.”

He recalled that his Uncle Joe made a cryptic statement in the hospital before dying.

“He tried to tell us,” Nunzio said. “But all he would say was ‘Don’t sell the house. The house is rich. You’ll all be rich someday.’?”

Nunzio Calcagno said he searched the home before selling it but never thought to look under the floorboards.

Attorney Wesley B. Smith, representing LoCascio the landlord, told the media: “We contend that the money was intentionally placed under the boards by someone and then forgotten.” Under Ohio law, he said, mislaid money belonged to the homeowner.

Morris attorney Hoover countered: “It wasn’t mislaid. Someone put it there knowingly.”

Lawyer A.P. Feldman, representing Calcagno, said: “The money can’t be classed as lost or mislaid. Joe put it there. He didn’t lose it there under the closet boards, certainly, and he didn’t mislay it there, either.”

Meanwhile, Harriet Morris, who served as a WAC in the Pacific in World War II, waited. She wanted the money but she wanted it legally.

She had refused to go on welfare and was embarrassed when anonymous donors gave more than $70 to the family. Harriet was flooded with phone calls and letters from people who read news articles about her honesty.

“Some people called me up and told me how dumb I was to turn it in,” she told the Beacon Journal. “And someone wrote me a letter calling me the most stupid woman in the world. I guess a lot of people think that way. But all I know is that the money wasn’t mine, as much as I would like to have it.”

Besides, if she had kept the money, she could have been charged with larceny if the real owner ever turned up.

For nearly two years, the money remained in the safety deposit box. Finally in 1966, Summit County Probate Judge Nathan Koplin approved a settlement.

Heir Nunzio Calcagno was awarded the bulk of the cash — $13,859 — while landlord Thomas LoCascio received the smallest sum — $400. Harriet Morris collected $4,200 and son David got $2,800.

The Morrises gained less than $4,667 — about $34,000 today — after subtracting attorney fees and income taxes.

Still, Harriet said she was “very well pleased” with the settlement.

“I plan to pay off some debts and buy the children some clothes that they’ve needed,” she said. “I’ll put the rest into a savings account. I hope I can put in $500 at least.”

If she had to do it again, she said she would still report every penny to the police.

“At least I can go out now and spend the money without constantly looking over my shoulder for someone coming to take it away from me,” she said. “What would be involved in sneaking around to spend it just wouldn’t be worth it.”

Anyway, she had a story that her family would remember for the rest of their lives.

Harriet Morris proved that honesty always pays — even if it pays only a fraction of the total sum.

Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.