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City College physics professor opens his mail to find box with $180,000 from an anonymous donor

'I had never seen money like that ever in my life except for in movies, so I was quite shocked,' he said.

City College physics professor opens his mail to find box with $180,000 from an anonymous donor
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/Ildar Imashev

It was supposed to be a normal day for Vinod Menon, a physics professor at City College of New York in Harlem. In fact, one of the first normal days in a long while, as he was finally back to in-person teaching after the school had moved to distance learning in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the day quickly took an unexpected turn when the 49-year-old decided to look through a pile of office mail that had accumulated over the months. Amidst the pile—which was mostly junk—sat a cardboard box the size of a toaster.


As he inspected the package, which was postmarked November 10, 2020, the professor's initial thought was that it might be some sort of memento sent by a former student. It had been sitting unopened for more than nine months, first in the campus mailroom and then in the physics office, and was addressed to "Chairman, Physics Department"—Menon's title. "I opened it, there was a letter inside that said wonderful things about the education this person had received," he told CBS News. "That person wanted to give back in some way." Inside the battered cardboard box, Menon found stacks of $50 and $100 bills bundled in paper bands, totaling $180,000.


"I removed the bubble wrap and there was all this cash staring at me," he said. "I had never seen money like that ever in my life except for in movies, so I was quite shocked." According to CNN, the unsigned letter explained that the anonymous donor graduated "long ago" from The City College of New York with a double major in physics and mathematics, then got an MA in physics there and went on to get a double Ph.D. in physics and astronomy. "Assuming that you are (a) bit curious as to why I am doing this, the reason is straightforward: the excellent educational opportunity available to me -- which I took full advantage of at CCNY (and Stuyvesant High School) -- gave me the basis to continue to develop," the letter said.


The donor added that they had had "a long, productive, immensely rewarding" scientific career. The box of money reportedly weighed 4 pounds, 8 ounces, and cost $90.80 to send by two-day Priority Mail from Pensacola, Florida. Although there was a name on the package, it didn't match anyone in the CCNY alumni records and the return address couldn't solve the mystery either, Menon said. As soon as he saw the money in the box, the professor alerted the Dean of Sciences, who then called security and City College foundation, which handles donations to the school.


Since officials had to make sure that it wasn't the proceeds of some sort of criminal activity before the school could accept the donation, CCNY decided to launch an investigation, involving the New York Police Department and FBI. "That's when it left our hands," Menon said. "I was getting occasional emails updating me on how things were going and maybe a month or two later, I came to know that the FBI cleared the money and there was nothing wrong with it, it wasn't illegal or anything, so the college can keep it." Once they knew the gift was legit, the CUNY board of trustees unanimously voted to approve a resolution accepting the money.


The school now plans to honor the anonymous donor's wish by using the money for a scholarship. Since the cost of in-state tuition at the college is $7,500 a year, the $180,000 can cover more than a decade of tuition for two students. "I'd like them to know that firstly, we are thankful for the gift. I'm really honored that he or she decided that this was the right place to spend that kind of money on," Menon said. "And I'm also proud of the fact that the person had a wonderful career based on the education that they received at City College." The school is still working out the details for creating the scholarship, he added, but the first students could receive it as soon as the fall semester in 2022.

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