THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Brian McGrory

Right thing was easy

From left; Captain Frank Mancini, Ryan Lee, and Officer Gary Marino. From left; Captain Frank Mancini, Ryan Lee, and Officer Gary Marino. (Boston Police)
By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / February 11, 2011

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He was plodding through the midst of last Wednesday’s slushy storm, a young man heading from his nonprofit job to help his wife shovel out her parking lot at work.

Ryan Lee was on Meridian Street in East Boston at 11:15 a.m. when he saw the white plastic bag fluttering in a snowbank. It caught his eye because of the distinct color and shape of the objects inside: dark green rectangles, stacked thick against each other.

Money.

In that one moment, there could have been a lot of emotions that rushed into Lee’s head, maybe relief that he could pay some bills or euphoria that he could take an overdue vacation. He could have stood on the street and thumbed through every bill in the sizable stack as the tally grew beyond his wildest dreams. Or he could have simply stashed the bag in his jacket pocket so nobody would see.

But Ryan Lee felt and did exactly none of this. “I picked it up,’’ he explained yesterday. “I didn’t open the bag. It was raining, and it looked like there was money stacked one on top of the other. I thought I’d rather open it up in the police station than out in the rain.’’

The police station he was referring to was the East Boston precinct house right across the street from where he found the cash. He walked inside and approached the front desk and placed the surprisingly heavy bag on the counter. “They were, I’d say, pleasantly surprised to have someone turn it in,’’ Lee said. “They came out from behind the desk and shook my hand.’’

Pleasantly surprised? Try stunned. “It doesn’t happen every day that someone turns in a bag of cash,’’ said Captain Frank Mancini. “This kind of thing doesn’t always happen in police work.’’

The officers searched through the bag and found a bank deposit slip inside for about $2,500, made out by the owner of the Shell gas station right across the street.

One of the officers headed out to get the owner. By one account, he found Javaid Altaf Butt searching frantically along the street for the bag, which he later said had slipped out of his pocket. Butt came inside, where he was joyfully reunited with his money.

Butt, who was not at the gas station late yesterday, could not be reached.

To those who know Lee, 32, his actions were exactly what they would expect. He works for Project Bread, the antihunger agency that distributes millions of dollars to hundreds of food pantries across Massachusetts. Specifically, he is in charge of recruitment of participants for the annual Walk for Hunger that happens every May.

“He is a terrific guy, someone with a lot of integrity,’’ said Margaret Sloat, director of development for Project Bread. “He’s committed to the mission and cares about his fellow man. It’s why I’m not surprised he turned it in.’’

Lee was asked yesterday why he didn’t simply keep walking with the bag and never look back.

“I live here in East Boston,’’ he said. “We work for hungry people. Whoever dropped it, they had a family. If I dropped it, I’d want someone to turn it in.’’

No fleeting thoughts at all? “You know it came out of someone’s pocket,’’ he replied. “Someone’s counting on that money. It is probably someone who needed it a lot more than I did.’’

Lee and his wife, who also works for a nonprofit, were volunteers together in the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan. He has taught high school history in his native state of Maine. The morning of the discovery, he was working in the otherwise shuttered offices of Project Bread, proving Sloat right when she said, “There is no one more committed.’’

The mayor has proclaimed today to be Ryan Lee Day in honor of a man who did the right thing. For Lee, though, there was never a choice at all.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.