Pocket Change
How a parent lost his wallet—but found
something worth much more—at Penn.

By Dave Noyce | I notice my wallet is missing while sitting in Irvine Auditorium. My wife and I have been listening to Penn’s president tell hundreds of proud but pensive parents why they should send their sons and daughters here.

Our older son is down to his final three college choices: The George Washington University, the University of Utah, and Penn.

If Zachary chooses GW, he’ll live in dorms in Washington, just down the street from the White House and around the corner from Watergate. It’s a wonkish wonderland for a political junkie like Zack.

He isn’t sure about a major, but he’s leaning toward journalism. Zack was the editor of his high-school paper his junior and senior years. If he sticks with newspapers, he will have an edge at GW. He was one of the few freshmen admitted directly into the private university’s journalism school, located in the heart of the world’s premier news town.

If he opts for my alma mater, the University of Utah, he’ll inherit a college with a pretty fair journalism school (it has kept me in the business for nearly 25 years) and an even better football team. He’ll save us tens of thousands of dollars a year, thanks to in-state tuition and at-home room and board. And we won’t need to replace his wardrobe—all those U. coats, sweaters, shirts, pants, socks, and ties that have made the campus bookstore our family’s favorite one-stop gift-buying shop.

If Zack picks Penn, he’ll get to live in a Hogwarts-style dorm—complete with ornamental towers, majestic arches, and gargoyles. Penn has no journalism school, but it boasts a communications major and one of the nation’s leading think tanks: the Annenberg School for Communication. For good measure, he will be able to call himself a Quaker. Now how many tobacco-shunning, alcohol-abstaining Utahns can proclaim that in their Mormon Sunday School class?

It really isn’t a contest. GW and Utah are fine schools. But Penn is, well, Penn, one of the most distinguished schools in the nation. I feel out of place among the ivy, like Mr. Rogers at a Calvin Klein fashion show. Zack, however, looks right at home this spring day, surrounded by the Gothic buildings, the tree-lined walks, and the students absorbed in their books.

He fits.

But will a Penn education fit our modest budget? It will cost more than $35,000 for tuition and housing his first year alone. Even counting a generous scholarship, we’ll be coughing up $1,600 a month. Gulp.

Maybe that’s why I find myself in Irvine Auditorium checking for my wallet. I had moved it from its usual home in my right rear pocket to my right front pocket. I had read someplace that wallets were less likely to be stolen from a front pocket. Of course, the article said nothing about them being more likely to be lost from there.

Anyway, I search all of my pockets. No wallet. I look under my chair. No wallet. I ask my wife, Beth, if she has it. No luck. I even ask the parents sitting behind us if they found a wallet. No, they say.

Panic sets in. We send off Zack with a group of prospective students to visit the dorms. He must press on with the tour. I decide to retrace our steps on campus while Beth alerts the credit-card companies.

With map in hand, I chart a course for the Penn Bookstore. Without Zack, our navigator, who seemed to know where everything was from the moment he set foot on campus, I could easily wind up losing more than a wallet—namely, myself—if I’m not careful.

I head west through Perelman Quad, gazing up at the greenish Gothic castle that is College Hall, and continue to wonder: Can we really afford this place? Sure, Ben Franklin preached “a penny saved is a penny earned.” But what he didn’t say is that you have to save 3.5 million of those pennies to earn one year of enrollment at his university.

If Zack picks Penn, we will have to start draining cash from my retirement account. And we have three other kids to put through college. At this rate, if our youngest goes to NYU, we may have to write him an I-O-U.

But school always comes first for our children. For years I have sung that longtime Democratic tune that education is an investment, not an expense. Now, rushing through Penn’s luscious learning environment, I realize the time is fast-approaching for me to put my paycheck where my politics are.

At last, I reach 36th and Walnut. On the corner is the multistoried bookstore. We had gone there earlier in the day and scooped up Penn shirts, sweaters, and caps along with Penn pens, pencils, and notebooks. All told, we dropped a couple of hundred dollars in the bookstore. I must have dropped my wallet there, too. I go to the information desk but leave the store dejected.

My next stop: the financial-aid office. The wallet must be there. Surely, I am not the first person to lose my wallet—literally, not figuratively—at Penn’s financial-aid office. We had stopped there to talk about Zack’s scholarship. I ask at the counter, look in the waiting area, and even peek in the counselor’s office where we had sat just hours earlier. There’s no sign of it.

I head back to Irvine. I don’t see where my wallet could be. But I do see something else—something far more valuable—as I head down Locust Walk. I see my son in the faces of the students I pass. I see Zack, four months hence, sitting in Van Pelt Library poring over Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. I see him drifting asleep in his Quad dorm room with his Chicago Cubs baseball poster above his bunk. I see him cheering at Franklin Field as the Quakers roll past Cornell. I see him at the historic Palestra with his new Penn pals belting out the school song after shooting down Princeton.

I see Zack in a basement lecture room at the Annenberg School, scribbling notes on the dangers of media conglomerates. I see him grabbing a front-row seat at Kelly Writers House to hear historian David McCullough discuss John Adams. I see him perched cross-legged beneath the Ben Franklin statue outside College Hall, cramming for a history midterm.

I see my son …

At Penn.

This is truly where he belongs.

I hurry back to Irvine, where I fill out a report for the Penn police. Zack gets back from his dorm tour. He’s pumped, like a 10-year-old after his first roller-coaster ride. We tell him the wallet is gone. He heads back into the auditorium for one last look.

Moments later, Zack returns holding a bright red, University-of-Utah-insignia-bearing wallet.

“Where was it?” I ask, opening the tri-fold and finding everything in order—license, cash, credit cards, family photos.

“Oh, it was lodged in the side of the seat where you were sitting,” he says with a shrug.

I had looked underneath my seat, next to it, behind it, and in front of it. I had spent a couple of hours scurrying to the bookstore, the financial-aid office, and practically all points in between. I checked with receptionists, clerks, counselors, even the police. And here comes Zack and, in a matter of minutes, he finds the wallet. Yep, it’s just one more sign he belongs at Penn.

In the end, Zack found a lot more at Penn than my wallet. During his freshman year there, he found a home in the Fisher Hassenfeld wing of that Hogwarts of a dorm, where Penn would begin to work its magic. He found a spot in the living-and-learning media and communications program, which took him to Washington one weekend to be schooled by politicians, pollsters, and pundits. He sat at the feet of some of the world’s top scholars on Africa, Asia, and Europe. He wrote a weekly column for The Daily Pennsylvanian. He pounded the drums in Penn’s scramble band, which took him on road trips to New York, New Haven, Boston, Providence, and Princeton. He packed his calculus sign (somehow he concocted a Go Penn banner using a mathematical equation) and cheered on the Quakers in an NCAA women’s basketball game against UConn. He heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson speak about social justice and sat awestruck when legendary playwright Arthur Miller—in one of the final curtain calls before his death—read from his latest work at Irvine.

Zack’s Philadelphia story continued when he joined the Penn Democrats. He protested. He politicked. He produced and plastered up posters. He heard Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry speak in Philly. He even saved a parking place for former Vice President Al Gore.

At Penn, my son found a new love for old books and rejuvenated an old thirst for new knowledge. He toured museums, Independence Hall, the Constitution Center. He found a diversity of people, places, philosophies, and experiences he never would have come across in Utah.

“I remember for once—maybe the first time in my life outside of my home—feeling like I belonged somewhere,” Zack says now of his freshman year. “I fit in, not because I was so alike or any such thing. I fit in because I was completely different. And at Penn, that’s OK. … Penn was clay. It would fill in around me, rather than trying to force me to mold to its hole.”

Yes, Zack (who is on a Mormon mission now in Dallas and will be graduating with the Class of 2009) found himself at Penn—who he is, what he believes, how he feels. In short, he found his school. And I found reasons to keep writing those monthly tuition checks. Bless the Penn Payment Plan.

Dave Noyce graduated from the University of Utah decades ago. He is the communities editor at The Salt Lake Tribune, where he has worked for 22 years. He is also a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan (“Are there any other kind?”).

©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 03/03/06


Notes from the Undergrad: A parent’s story
Alumni Voices: Muslims in the middle
“Soccer. Music. Art. Seeds.”
Expert Opinion: Obituaries to die for

Mar|Apr 06 Content
Gazette Home
Previous issue’s column