VIRTUE MAY BE ITS OWN REWARD, BUT as the Nichter family of Buena Park, Calif., has discovered, it isn’t always the only one. Three weeks ago, Tom Niehter, 44, his wife, Pauline, 46, and their son, Jason, 11, became national celebrities for returning more than $2,000 they found in a wallet. Now their own windfall has reached staggering proportions. In all, the family has received more than $106,000 in donations from people eager to reward them for their honesty—and the money is still rolling in. “It’s like you died and went to heaven and were reborn again,” says Pauline.
Until now, the Nichters have known mostly hard luck. They had gone to a local mall on Feb. 25 for some window-shopping—about the only sort of shopping the family could afford. Tom, a printer, has been out of steady work for five years. Pauline lost her warehouse job a year ago. Homeless for much of the past few months, the Nichters had recently moved in with Pauline’s parents.
But inside the mall’s Kay-Bee Toy Store, things began to turn around when Pauline spotted a wallet near a cash register—apparently with about $200 inside. Tom concedes that the Nichters did think of keeping the money. But their better nature prevailed, and they took the wallet to the nearest police station, where to their amazement they discovered it had secret pockets and contained $2,394. When the owner showed up, he thanked the Nichters but left without even mentioning a reward.
Happily for the Nichters, a local TV news crew was on the scene and filmed a spot on the family for that night’s broadcast. Within days the networks picked up the story, and the Nichters were hailed as heroes. Thanks to the publicity, Tom and Pauline received dozens of job offers, which they are still weighing, and thousands of encouraging letters, many with donations ranging from $1 to $500. “How do you tell all these people thank you?” asks Pauline, who suggests that the family will use the money to pay off old debts and set up a college fund for Jason. “We just did what you’re supposed to do,” she says, “what was right.”