Gregor Brune needed cheering up when he found a 1968 penny during a walk 10 years ago in Lawrence, Kan. (pop. 80,098). He pocketed the lucky penny-and has had the good fortune of collecting nearly 13,000 more with help from donors across the country.
"I'd like to see how many I can get and keep the collection going indefinitely," says Brune, 42, a librarian and history buff who became fascinated with the year 1968 while growing up and hearing stories from his mother, Caroljean Brune, about the 1960s counterculture movement and listening to her music.
"I'd go through my mom's record collection, and I noticed that many of my favorite albums were produced in 1968," Brune says of music by the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. "I thought there was something special about that year."
Brune's appreciation for 1968 as a pivotal year in history grew as he learned more about the year's events: anti-war protests, political upheavals, the Apollo 8 moon mission, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
Naturally, his favorite year came to mind in 1999 when he stumbled upon a penny while walking on a downtown sidewalk and mulling over some personal problems. "I thought, 'If that penny is a 1968, it'll be a confirmation that everything will be OK.'"
Good fortune found Brune that day! He dropped the lucky penny in a jar and thereafter checked the date on every penny that came his way. In two years, he had collected about a hundred 1968 pennies, and friends began adding to his coin collection. To thank them, Brune created a website in 2004 with names of contributors, a current tally of pennies and a 1968 history lesson, which he gleaned by reading the entire year of 1968 Time magazines, week by week in chronological order.
"It gave me a hobby," he says.
Brune's happenstance hobby has turned into a passion-some might say an obsession-for 1968 pennies. Every Wednesday, he buys 50 rolls of pennies at Lawrence Bank and spends three hours checking them for 1968s. He usually finds 15 to 20. Each day, he opens his Post Office Box 1968 and retrieves five or six cents sent from contributors like Astrid McMullen-Baker, 27, of Madison, Wis., one of Brune's former co-workers.
"It's a good way to casually learn about the history of such an incredible year," she says. "It's a fun project."
No one knows how many of the 4.85 billion pennies minted in 1968 remain in circulation, but Brune estimates that half are lost forever, "thrown in wishing wells, in ships that sank and buildings that burned."
Two years ago as 1968 pennies trickled in, Brune decided he wanted people to see his growing collection. He relocated the pennies, stored in a giant glass jug, from his home to Beyond the Door, a Lawrence shop with 1960s-era records, posters and clothing.
"It's a great conversation piece," says store-owner Sherry Fitzgerald, 60. "My customers go through their purses and pockets and see if they can find a penny."
Some people have asked Brune if the penny collection is a get-rich-slow scheme, which makes him smile.
"The collection belongs to everyone who has contributed, and I'll never cash it in," he says. "I think of it as a conceptual art piece. When I fill this jar, I'll just get a bigger jar."
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