The luck changed for Billy Ray Harris one day last month when the usual tinkling of coins being dropped into his beggar’s cup on a plaza in Kansas City was punctuated by a slightly heavier clunk. A few minutes later he looked inside and spied a woman’s engagement ring with a tidy-looking rock.
The first thought of a man begging to survive might have been to run to the nearest jewellery shop. And that is what Mr Harris did. But when he was offered $4,000 (£2,600), a better instinct took charge. He kept it in case the owner came back.
Thus began an urban fable that has captured the hearts of America. Whatever impelled Mr Harris to turn down the cash – he has attributed it to the pastor grandfather who raised him – he has been repaid. Six weeks later he has been reunited with long-lost siblings, he has a home, a job, and enough money to retire from begging.
The ring’s owner returned two mornings later – Sarah Darling said she may have dropped something valuable into his cup. Mr Harris related the moment in an appearance on NBC’s breakfast show, Today: “‘Was it a ring?’” he recalled asking her. “And she says, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘Well, I have it.’”
Ms Darling decided with her husband to set up an online fund to try to raise the $4,000 that Mr Harris, 55, had turned down. By yesterday, it had reached $185,000 and was still growing. In the meantime, a sister, Robin Harris Williams, with whom he had lost touch, heard the story on the news and realised Mr Harris was her brother.
It was on the NBC set that Mr Harris was finally reunited on Sunday with Robin and two other sisters, Nellie and Elsie, after 16 years apart. “I’m in shock,” Mr Harris said. And he knows he made the right decision at the jewellery shop. “This is a big payoff,” said a smiling Mr Harris, surrounded by his family. “Got it all right here now.” He also has a roof over his head and an air mattress. “It’s like living like a king compared to where I was.”
Ms Darling, who started the fairy tale when she reached into her purse that day in February for coins, forgetting that amongst them was her diamond ring, said: “It seemed like a miracle. I thought for sure there was no way I would get it back.”