Rosenblum: For siblings, mining for pennies is a rich tradition

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 23, 2012 - 9:17 PM
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Siblings Sue Moore and Bill Morton compete to find the year’s first penny. The loser buys the winner breakfast.

Sue Moore, 52, won her own lottery on April 28, when she was handed a 2012 penny at a craft store in Door County. "I couldn't stand it!" said Moore, 52, the mother of Laura, 16, and Joe, 14. "I was jumping up and down."

For a penny? Yep. It meant that her brother, Bill Morton, 51, owed her breakfast. Again.

For 30 years, Moore of Mahtomedi, and Morton of Inver Grove Heights, have stayed close through their made-up penny contest. The goal is simple: Whoever finds the first penny of the year wins.

It began as a joke when they both were broke.

"Oh, my gosh, 30 years?" said Moore, who works for the Hennepin County public health department. "Good heavens."

Contest rules are strict. The penny must be found through ordinary transactions. You cannot smile charmingly at the grocery store checker, asking for your change in round copper pieces. You cannot go to a bank or fish pennies out of a coin jar. You cannot have buddies search for you.

"Friends say, 'I have a 2012. Do you want to see it?'" Morton said. "No! I don't want to see it!"

At the Caribou near his office, servers aware of the game have been known to place a penny on the counter for him.

"Can't do it," he tells them. "Can't do it."

He confessed to once spending $4.99, though.

"I didn't know about that until this year," Moore said, eyeing her brother. "I have not had to stoop so low."

Once you find the penny through legitimate channels, you must call the other sibling immediately and try not to gloat.

Who's won more? Whoever is answering the question.

It is a fact that Moore has her brother beat 4-1 the past four years. She found the 2011 penny at a local grocery store and the 2010 penny at the gift shop of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

Morton last won in June of 2009, finding that year's penny at a coffee shop. "Sue and I were both getting antsy about how long the search was taking," Morton recalled. "I left a message for her as soon as I found it. I will not go into details of the little jig I danced."

Moore and Morton grew up in Inver Grove Heights, two middle kids sandwiched between older brother, Mike, and younger sisters, Kathy and Barb. The two weren't particularly close in high school but started having breakfast together on his breaks from Purdue University. Morton sought his sister's advice about girls and what to do with his life.

"You were always a goody-two-shoes," she said.

"Yes, I was."

After graduating, Morton returned home unemployed. For Christmas of 1982, he bought his sister a gum ball. Not a gum ball machine. A gum ball.

"That described our situation," she said. The game was born in 1983, making this year's breakfast their 30th.

Early on, she'd order a bran muffin ($1.50), a pat of butter (free!), and coffee. He'd order pancakes or eggs.

"The best part," Moore said, "was that the winner got orange juice. It was a whole dollar at the time. Coming out of college, that was a huge splurge."

Morton, married and the father of Grace, 8, and Lloyd, 6, now is "a hotshot engineer for Seagate," said his sister. Still, he'd never consider stopping, nor would she.

They've found pennies at the dry cleaner, grocery store, gas station and book store, as early as February and as late as June. On occasion, they've had to postpone while Morton traveled overseas on business, but they've never missed a year.

They typically celebrate their penny breakfasts at the Egg and I in Minneapolis, the Louisiana Cafe in St. Paul, or any Keys. Back in the day, Rick's Old Time Cafe and Sir Jack's Cafe near Lake Nokomis were part of the mix.

They don't fret about prices anymore. Sometimes, they place the penny on the table. "Whenever we tell people the story," Moore said, "they just love it."

Moore regrets that they've only saved a few of their winning coins. "Why didn't we save them all?" she wondered. "Such a bummer."

"But it lives on in our hearts, Sue," Morton said with a grin. "The cool thing was..." he continued.

"...that you lost more times?" Moore said.

"Yes," Morton said with a laugh. "That's the coolest thing."

Actually, the coolest thing is how grateful they still feel to share this annual tradition. "Life has really changed," said Moore. "Relationships, jobs, kids, aging parents. Had we not had the penny breakfasts, I wouldn't have seen him on my own. We make it happen."

Morton agrees. "It's a great way to stay connected," he said, pulling his winning 2009 penny from his wallet. "And the anticipation is lots of fun."

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com • 612-673-7350

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