SAN FRANCISCO — Fred Skau can't forget the day when he first asked customers of the neighborhood bar he tends on the lower reaches of fashionable Nob Hill to drop their spare pennies into an empty 5-gallon pickle jar.
Skau thought it would be a great way to collect loose change for sufferers of AIDS. It was August of last year and he aimed for 1 million pennies, or $10,000, by last Christmas.
He easily made that goal and kept going. So far his "Every Penny Counts" campaign has collected more than $115,000.
This year alone, he and a handful of acquaintances have gathered more than 12 tons of pennies from nearly 300 jars spread throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
San Francisco has been one of the U.S. cities hit hardest by the deadly disease, and its municipal budget is strained by the demand for services for victims.
Skau, a former accountant for General Mills who says he has stopped counting the number of friends who have perished in the epidemic, says the response to his penny campaign took him by surprise. It also created a logistical nightmare.
"It took off like gang busters. We weren't ready for it," he said in a recent interview in which he admitted that he had been naive in underestimating the work needed to sustain a simple charity.
As the pennies poured in, so did the headaches. A jug of pennies easily weighs 60 pounds and Skau says he and his friends must lift each penny at least 11 times before it reaches the bank.
Initially, a savings and loan association processed and counted the incoming coins, but the flood grew so great that "Every Penny Counts" had to enlist the help of Wells Fargo Bank, one of San Francisco's largest commercial banks.
Brinks Inc., the armored car company, helps transport the coins to the bank.
Burke Ray, who lost four close friends to AIDS, joined Skau's penny crusade after its start and now calls himself the "penny coordinator." An employee of a furniture manufacturer, he spends his lunch breaks emptying full jars and his nights sorting through the coins, picking out extraneous junk such as earrings, paper clips, bobby pins and antique subway tokens.
"It's the best job I've ever had," Ray said, "and it's great therapy. I've lost too many people."
In the beginning Skau, who does not have a car, rode city buses to empty the filled jars. Some of them, he said, were filled so fast they had to be emptied four times a day.
"I knew they were out there, because I had lots of pennies myself," he said.
His eyes lit up when he estimated that there are 50 pennies squirreled away for each of San Francisco's 700,000 residents. That, he figures, is $350,000 for the fight against AIDS, and he is determined to get every cent.
The 5-gallon glass pickle jug that started it all at "The Gate," the bar where Skau still works, proved to be too heavy to handle. A liquor company has since donated lighter 1-gallon cherry jars.
So far the largest single penny donation has come from a man who had collected the copper coins for 20 years and stored them in the closets of his house--110,000 pennies worth $1,100.
One woman, after reading about the campaign in a newspaper, drove to San Francisco from Fresno, a distance of 185 miles, to drop off her deceased husband's piggy bank.
Another woman brought in 53 pounds of pennies in dishpans and other containers.
One couple set up a penny jar at their wedding reception.
"We're only asking for pennies--we don't care how much," Skau said.
A 91-year-old man showed up with a bowling bag full of pennies, about $65 worth, collected by his now-deceased wife. A youngster in Phoenix mailed in a dime and a few pennies along with a note that read: "These are my pennies."
Jars are now scattered throughout the city--in City Hall, churches, firehouses, law firms, laundries and schools. Charles Schwab & Co., America's largest discount brokerage, placed jars throughout its 28-story headquarters building.
Skau and Ray think that the acceptance of the project by the non-gay community has been its greatest accomplishment.
"We'll never know how many doors have been opened with pennies," said Skau.
Some donors have stuffed into the jars endorsed tax refund checks, money orders, bills and personal checks.
Partly because of the logistical problem, Skau discourages donations from out-of-town locations, and he and Ray have started teaching volunteers from other cities how to collect pennies for their own fights against AIDS.
Similar campaigns have been started in Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle and suburban Los Angeles.
"Every Penny Counts" gives its collection to the AIDS Emergency Fund, a San Francisco charity that provides financial assistance to those afflicted with the disease.
According to meticulous records kept by Skau, the penny crusade spends less than 3% of its collections on administrative costs, mainly for transportation, and has benefited 517 people stricken with AIDS.
About half of them, forced to quit working because of the illnesses that come after the AIDS virus destroys the body's immune system, received help in paying their rent. Other funds were spent for utilities, insurance premiums, telephone bills and medical expenses.