A thief stole Dennis Helmer's wallet almost half a century ago.
But he didn't discover it was even missing until Friday – when someone gave it back.
In one of those only-in-South Jersey tales, Helmer, 78, a former Marine Corps reservist retired from a marketing job at GlaxoSmithKline, got a call from a guy who said he'd found Helmer's wallet.
"What wallet?" Helmer, who lives in Westmont, asked the fellow, Don Williams of Bellmawr.
Nothing was missing from Helmer's life. Mary Ann, 77, his wife of 54 years, was fine, as were the couple's three grown kids. All was well.
Ever the wise Marine, Helmer grew suspicious, thinking Williams was a scam artist. He was about to hang up when Williams began listing what he'd found in the wallet, which turned out to be a remarkably well-preserved, brown leather time capsule of Helmer's life so many years ago.
In it, there were:
• His 1957 Selective Service card.
• A St. Christopher medal.
• A receipt for payment for his first semester at Drexel University in 1956 (a mere $168, by the way — maybe the craziest single fact in this story).
• Several photographs of girls, as well as a snapshot of Helmer at his Camden Catholic High School prom with his date – not Mary Ann, as it happens.
Helmer realized the whole thing was on the level, and Williams drove the four or so miles to Helmer's house along with his wife, Stacey, to present the wallet.
So, how did all this happen?
It turns out the Williamses had had a fire, and in refurbishing their house, a contractor had found the wallet in a ceiling, along with some books and a newspaper from 1945, Helmer said.
Don Williams saw Helmer's name in the wallet, looked him up on the web, and made contact.
But when had the wallet gone missing to begin with?
The Helmers did some noodling and finally figured it out.
In May 1970, when Helmer was 31, he and Mary Ann had attended an anniversary party for Helmer's parents at his sister's house in Westmont. During the fete, a burglar had broken into the parents' house — Helmer's childhood home — a mile away and snatched some jewelry. Evidently, the sneak then scuttled into Helmer's room and grabbed his old wallet from high school.
Mary Ann Helmer was left with two unanswered questions: "Why would the thief stick the wallet into the ceiling of a house?" And, she added with a laugh: "Why were there so many pictures of girls in my husband's wallet?"
Helmer fessed up. "These were girls I dated before I met my wife," he said. "It brought back a lot of pleasant memories."
Along with the wallet, Helmer gained a friend, he said, explaining that he and Williams hit it off unusually well. "I was hugging him and saying, 'You're a good guy.' "
The Helmers will be buying dinner for their new friends soon. Williams could not be reached Saturday night.
Seeing the St. Christopher medal again, which had been a gift from Helmer's grandmother, he promptly placed it in the wallet he currently carries. "She said to always have it with me," he said.
It turns out the story has a kind of karmic synchrony to it. In his spare time, Helmer searches for objects with his metal detector.
If he ever finds a wallet, he knows what to do.