An unsigned letter, a phony return address — and a cardboard box full of cash.
That's what a City College of New York professor found in his office back in September after he returned to in-person teaching this semester. Vinod Menon, the chair of the physics department at the college in Harlem, was looking through a pile of office mail that had accumulated since he had been working remotely. That's when he found a fairly beat-up box that was postmarked Nov. 10, 2020.
The box was not addressed to anyone in particular, just to the chair of the physics department at CCNY. When he opened the box, there was more cash inside than Menon had ever seen in his life: $180,000 in stacks of $50 and $100 bills.
"I've never seen this kind of money in real life in cash form," Menon told CNN. "I've never seen it except in movies, and so, yeah, I was shell shocked and I just did not know how to react."
Along with all the cash was a note, which included some supposed details about the sender, as well as instructions on how the money should be spent. The anonymous sender stated that they graduated from CCNY "long ago," majoring in physics and mathematics. The sender requested that the money go to any "deserving junior and senior physics majors in the Department who are also doubling mathematics major — and in need of financial support to continue their studies."
The anonymous sender went on to share that they went to CCNY after attending Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, and later earned a master's degree as well as a Ph.D. as part of a "long, productive, immensely rewarding to me, scientific career."
The college didn't have any record of the name found on the return address having graduated from the school. While the package's return address did lead to an actual address in Pensacola, Florida, it did not lead to anyone connected to the donation, the New York Times reported.
"It was a complete shock — I know a lot of academics and I’ve never heard of anything like this," Menon told the New York Times. "I didn’t know if the college accepted cash, so I didn’t know if they’d keep it."
The school had to make a decision regarding what to do with the money, and after checking with police and FBI officials to ensure it was not tied to any criminal activity, CUNY's board of trustees voted to happily accept the gift.
Chairman of CUNY’s Board of Trustees, William C. Thompson, said in the Dec. 13 meeting that it was "absolutely astonishing, $180,000 in cash in a box." Thompson asked CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez if it was the first time this kind of donation had ever been made.
"Clearly in a box, I think it’s a first," Rodríguez replied. Another member of the board said the school should get the box bronzed and put into a display case.
Menon said that the generous gift would be used to fund two full scholarships every year for the next 10 years.
"Seeing the money was a shock. Reading the letter really made me proud and happy to belong to this institution, which actually made a difference in that person's life," Menon told CNN.