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Enjoy Magazine

The Penny Man, Alvin Ehrhardt, Leaves a Legacy

05/22/2015 09:21AM ● By Claudia Mosby

Penny Wise

June 2015
By Claudia Mosby

The penny often gets a bum rap. We cannot purchase anything with only one or two, and not wanting to be bothered, we often discard them in jars or abandon them in “penny trays” at retail checkout stands. Financial institutions frequently charge a fee to take them and the U.S. Mint loses millions of dollars annually producing a coin whose costs outweigh its value. The grassroots PennyFreeBiz movement is working to eliminate the one-cent piece from U.S. currency by 2016.

Alvin Ehrhardt, however, did not succumb to the penny aversion of our times. Instead, he saw its potential to fund good work, a first easy step to an accumulation for a greater good.

A Freemason, Shriner and member of the Scottish Rite, Ehrhardt began collecting pennies a decade ago to donate to charity. Before his passing in October 2014, he had amassed between 700,000 and 800,000 pennies, a project kept alive in the months since by the Redding Masonic Lodge #254.

“We had people donating as much as 40 pounds of pennies at a time to ‘Al’s Pennies,’” says fellow Mason Howard Kirkpatrick. “When they heard they could donate them to a charitable cause like this, they started bringing them in.” As the coins arrived, lodge members began rolling them. Northern California Insurance and the offices of CPA Tom Kurth in Redding bear signs in their windows with Ehrhardt’s picture, announcing themselves as a collection place. Kirkpatrick says the project will continue as long as people keep donating.

Lucille McGee, companion and caregiver to Ehrhardt for the seven years prior to his passing, describes him as “very outgoing and somewhat charismatic.” The idea for the collection, she says, grew out of a luncheon exchange one day with a fellow Shriner who talked about giving his “two cents worth.”

Ehrhardt took those two cents and collected another two each time he and his friend met. Out of that simple exchange, the idea was born to donate the money to the Sacramento Scottish Rite Childhood Language Center.

“Everyone knows of the Shriner’s Hospital, but many do not know about the Childhood Language Center,” says Wally Clark, chairman of its Board of Governors. “The work we do here helps children not only with their speech and language needs but also with their self-esteem.” The center serves an average of 100 children monthly, ranging in age from 18 months to 12 years of age. Licensed speech pathologists help children read and speak, working with many who have dyslexia. “All are treated free of charge,” says Clark. “We are able to do this by taking a percentage of interest annually from the Center Foundation account, which is made possible by donations from Alvin (Ehrhardt) and others.”

Most children (from Sacramento County to the Oregon Border) use center services for one-and-a-half to two years. While most are from the Sacramento area due to the logistics of accessing one-on-one services regularly, the center also provides assessment and diagnosis. “Sometimes parents really don’t know what or if an issue exists,” says Clark. “Those who live up north can apply and get their child diagnosed. With a good assessment, their local schools can often better meet student needs.”

Some of the money raised by Ehrhardt, says Kirkpatrick, supported the travel fund for bus operation from Redding to Sacramento for children in need.

“A lot of times people only get credit if they write a check for a million bucks,” says Clark. “What Al did shows that the ordinary person can do something extraordinary and it is deeply appreciated. He picked the penny because most anyone can donate a penny. A million pennies is $10,000.” Like Benjamin Franklin, Ehrhardt knew that “a penny saved is a penny earned.” When invested properly, it grows.