A U.S. Army veteran living on Chicago’s brutally cold streets finally had a warm place to rest his head this weekend.
And with a set of 37-year-old savings bonds back in the hands of the person who needed them, a kindhearted pawn shop owner from central Kansas was finally able to put his mind at ease.
The 650-mile connection was made a week after Chris Mathis called the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom from Jack & Dick’s Pawn Shop in Junction City, his family business about 125 miles west of Kansas City.
Mathis asked for help finding Woodrow Wilson Jr., who pawned nine $100 savings bonds for pocket money back in 1980 when he was 21 and stationed down the road at Fort Riley.
Three decades later, Mathis found the bonds — fully matured and worth more than $3,000 — tucked away in his grandfather’s old desk drawer in the pawn shop, and he embarked on a yearlong mission to return them to their original owner.
A private investigator discovered Wilson, now 58, was living homeless in Chicago. Mathis’ search hit a wall after that.
Within hours of the story being published, Sun-Times readers responded.
“His face jumped off the page at me,” downtown collection law attorney Nick Frisone said. “I yelled, ‘That’s Woody!”
Frisone wasn’t the only one to recognize Wilson. Turns out he’s quite the popular guy around the Loop financial district. Numerous tipsters spoke of a friendly face that they looked forward to seeing during their downtown commutes.
“He’s just a really warm guy,” Frisone said. “You can always count on him for a joke and a smile.”
After hours of canvassing Wilson’s hangouts on Jan. 2, a Sun-Times reporter finally tracked him down in a frigid alley near the Willis Tower — but Wilson was skeptical of Mathis’ story.
“I thought this was some kind of scam,” Wilson said. “Why would this guy want to help me?”
But he came around — and he had the documents to prove he was the real Woodrow.
“This is huge for me. I’m extremely grateful.”
Wilson recalled growing up in Lawndale and enlisting in the Army at his mother’s behest.
“She didn’t want me getting swept up in a gang,” Wilson said.
He remembered pawning the bonds given to him by his Aunt Rubbie Mae Wilson to buy new clothes and to cover rent at his boardinghouse.
“I hadn’t thought about them since,” he said.
Wilson left the Army in 1984 and bounced around Kansas and Arkansas before landing back in Chicago, where a 1990 drug conviction landed him in prison for a year.
It’s been tough for him to hold down work since then, he said, leading to years on the street.
With more money than he has seen in years, Wilson said he hopes to secure an affordable apartment and find steady work.
After Frisone helped him cash a portion the bonds Friday afternoon at a Wintrust Bank in the Loop, though, Wilson’s first stop was out to dinner with his girlfriend Olivia and their 2-year-old daughter of the same name.
Then they planned to escape Chicago’s latest single-digit night at a hotel.
Wilson is now among more than 50 people that Mathis has reunited with old savings bonds, and the pawn shop owner is working on returning 72 more.
Instead of pocketing the thousands of dollars for himself like he could, Mathis says he gets a kick out of surprising people with their long-lost notes.
“Pawn shop owners aren’t generally known for being sentimental people,” Mathis said. “I’ve had a few people ask me ‘Are you crazy?’ But a homeless veteran will be sleeping in a warm bed tonight. I know I did the right thing.”
Since Mathis wasn’t there to see Wilson’s face when he opened the envelope of bonds on Friday, he didn’t get his usual kick. But he called it a “special moment” getting to talk Wilson on the phone soon afterward.
He also put his thoughts in a letter to Wilson along with the long-forgotten bonds:
“When it started getting really cold around Christmas time I kept thinking about you,” Mathis wrote. “There are a lot of good people there in Chicago and I want to thank everyone there that tried to help us find you.
“I have always wanted to go to Wrigley Field to see the Cubs play. Maybe me and you can go see a game together sometime if I can ever get away from work for a few days.
“You take care old friend,