South Carolina

Penny to ‘priceless’: How an unusual coin found its way to Fort Mill

A man found a not-so-ordinary penny. Turns out, it belonged to a World War II vet.

Howard Wilford of Fort Mill received a not-so-ordinary penny from Larry Sikes in Tennessee. The penny belonged to Wilford's father, the late Clifford Howard Wilford, a World War II veteran who had lost the commemorative coin made in the 1990s.
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Howard Wilford of Fort Mill received a not-so-ordinary penny from Larry Sikes in Tennessee. The penny belonged to Wilford's father, the late Clifford Howard Wilford, a World War II veteran who had lost the commemorative coin made in the 1990s.

An extraordinary coin now belongs to a Fort Mill man who didn’t know it existed two weeks ago. A coin to remind him of the extraordinary man who lost it.

“We never knew it was there,” said Howard Wilford, showing off what he calls the patriotic penny bearing his father’s name. “We never knew it was in circulation. We never knew anything about it. We still don’t know much about it.”

Earlier this month, the Humboldt Chronicle published an article about a Vietnam veteran with a rare coin who was looking for the Wilford family. It detailed the penny’s trip from spare change in Alabama to Humboldt, a small city in western Tennessee.

Nellie Thomas manages Waddell Gardens, an apartment community for seniors in Humboldt. She said she heard resident and part-time maintenance worker Larry Sikes describe the coin he traded with his brother for a woodworked piece. On the coin, etched into what appears to be a rear face insert is the name, rank and service of Sgt. Clifford Wilford.

Thomas helped Sikes find information from several sources on the decorated World War II veteran, including the Veterans History Project. A packet of information included Wilford’s July 2017 obituary. The obituary named the funeral home. A couple of phone calls later and Sikes was talking to the Wilford family.

“He was sitting right here in my office with me,” Thomas said. “Everything just went from there. He was just so excited.”

Turns out, Sikes had a connection. His father fought in many of the same places Wilford did. Howard Wilford has a large wall in his home decorated with medals, maps and memorabilia celebrating his father’s service. His brother called him after talking to the pair in Tennessee.

“He knows I’m the one that has all of dad’s old war stuff,” said Howard Wilford, who moved his family to Fort Mill in 1978 to work for the former Praise the Lord ministry.

A couple of calls had come inquiring whether Sikes might want to sell the coin, Thomas said. A phone call with the late veteran’s son made profit an afterthought.

“He sat here that day and just cried,” Thomas said. “He wanted that penny back in the family’s hands.”

Howard Wilford doesn’t know much about his new possession. It lists his father as president of the 10th Infantry Association. The date on the typical front face of the coin is 1990. Howard Wilford guesses someone, most likely a jeweler, made the coins for some or all of the men in his father’s infantry regiment.

Howard Wilford only knows of two such men living, of the hundreds who served. He sent messages to both men asking about the coin, but hasn’t heard back. Howard Wilford is patient when it comes to service details. He nearly waited a lifetime to hear his father’s tales.

“Never,” Howard Wilford said, asked if his father talked much about the war. “It was later in life when my brother, my sister and myself pressed him and said, ‘Dad, you’ve got to tell us what happened.’”

Service during the war was two-sided for Clifford Wilford. It got the poor, youngest of 13 children raised on a Kentucky farm an education when he returned. He became an electrician and worked in the Michigan auto industry. Clifford Wilford fought in the five major European battles, and was there from D-Day to the liberation of concentration camps. He won all kinds of accolades including the French version of the Medal of Honor, La Legion D’Honneur.

“He was lucky that he lived,” Howard Wilford said. “It affected him his entire life.”

Eventually, Clifford Wilford wrote a 30-page account of his time served for his children, mainly sharing his experiences with the men who served alongside him. In the Army at 16 and outliving most of his infantry mates to 93, fellow soldiers were a key part of his life.

“They were in constant contact,” Howard Wilford said. “They were his buddies. He went to a reunion every single year probably for 30 or 40 years.”

Howard Wilford said his father lived in Alabama, Illinois and other places. He guesses his father lost or mistakenly spent the penny somewhere.

While its entire journey is unknown, the penny’s last two homes aren’t too far from one another except on a map. Humboldt sits at the edge of Gibson County, bordered by Crockett and Madison counties. Much like Fort Mill bordering Lancaster and Mecklenburg counties. Madison even has an Indian Land-esque panhandle. A Sugar Creek runs through both.

Humboldt was home to within 2,000 residents of Fort Mill back in 2010, though populations went separate ways since. Humboldt is home to the annual West Tennessee Strawberry Festival. It’s been attracting crowds since 1934. The festival is the first week of May each year, just like Fort Mill’s South Carolina Strawberry Festival.

A small, unusual coin now connects people in both communities. Howard Wilford and perhaps another family member plan to meet up with Sikes this summer in Tennessee.

“There’s no price on that,” Thomas said. “There’s no way we can ever repay for what you’ve done to protect our country.”

In a world of novelty, with coin collectors and historical intrigue, Howard Wilford smiles at the thought of the coin being worth much. Then again, it depends on who asks the question.

“It’s worth a penny,” he said. “But to me it’s priceless.”

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