For more than a half century, Isolde Zitzewitz’s wallet sat lodged in a drainpipe six stories above downtown Spokane.
The Princess Gardner polished cowhide wallet, brimming with the Women’s Army Corps veteran’s IDs, credit cards and receipts, tumbled back to the floor of the old Macy’s department store building earlier this month as Walker Construction employees Steven Upchurch and Jordan Duncan continued demolition ahead of the downtown landmark’s renovation.
“All of a sudden, that thing kind of flung out of there,” said Upchurch, watching a blowtorch-wielding Duncan finish the pipe disassembly on the first floor of the building Thursday. “I said, ‘Hold up, there’s a wallet there!’ ”
Inside, the pair discovered a time capsule of documents that included military paperwork from Germany, but no cash. They handed the wallet over to Justin Olney, superintendent of the Macy’s project, who then gave it to Doug Yost, director of real estate investment for Centennial Properties, a subsidiary of Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review. The wallet ended up in the newsroom, with no clear answer of how it got in the Macy’s building in the first place or who Zitzewitz was.
“The best we can tell, that was an old roof drain,” Olney said. “It could have just as easily stayed wedged in there, and went out in the trash. We’d have never seen it.”
If any police report was filed at the time, it’s likely been destroyed. The Spokane Police Department only keeps records of more serious crimes, such as homicides, from that period, and they’re housed off-site, said Michelle Anderson, a spokeswoman for the department.
Among the artifacts left in the wallet, which withstood decades of exposure with minimal damage to the papers within, are vehicle registrations and garage and gas station receipts that end abruptly in early 1958, indicating that may have been when the wallet was lost. At the time, the Welch building on the southeast corner of what became the Macy’s department store housed the Bon Marche, which had just expanded on the west side of the block in 1955.
Zitzewitz’s service card as a member of the Women’s Army Corps, a volunteer service created by Congress in 1942 to assist in the war effort, and a U.S. Army vehicle operator’s license in both English and German – dated 1956 and good for four years – are also tucked into the bulging wallet.
It holds a Chevron credit card issued to the Post Quartermaster for Camp Hanford in North Richland, Washington. That card would have pre-dated even American Express (launched in 1959). Behind that is a small, water-stained business card bearing a tongue-in-cheek rebuke popular among commissioned officers who took complaints from their subordinates.
“Your trials and tribulations have broken my heart,” the card reads. “They are unique. I have never heard anything like them before. As proof of my deepest sympathy, I give you this card which entitles you to one hour of condolence from the closest Chaplain.”
The nationally syndicated columnist Walter Winchell wrote about the cards in his “This is the Army” installment published in November 1942.
In addition to the paperwork, the wallet holds a receipt from Fred Meyer with handwritten items such as coffee, butter and ice cream, for a total bill of $12.60, and the black-and-white image of a young blond girl with a slight smile.
Barbara Brazington, a volunteer researcher with the Eastern Washington Genealogical Society, found city directory records for Zitzewitz that showed she lived with her mother, Augusta, in a four-bedroom rancher on Heroy Avenue near Rogers High School until at least 1958. Zitzewitz, who sometimes used the German preface “von” before her last name, had graduated from Salem High School in Oregon in 1941, where she was known to classmates as “Susie,” according to her yearbook.
There was no record of any marriages or children, and by 1968 Zitzewitz had moved to San Diego. She died there July 5, 2009, according to a short obituary in the San Diego Union Tribune newspaper that listed no surviving relatives.
But census data show that Zitzewitz’s mother remarried to a man named Hugo Meyerhoefer after Isolde was born, and that Isolde had a brother named Rolland. Rolland Zitzewitz had three children of his own, including a son, Ricci “Gus” Zitzewitz, who lives and works in Portland. He had been the executor of his aunt’s estate after her death.
Reached by phone this week at his office, Gus Zitzewitz confirmed the wallet as his aunt’s and identified the smiling girl in the photograph as his older sister, Dawn.
Gus Zitzewitz said his aunt had a long military career and was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base briefly, around the time the wallet disappeared. She never mentioned the missing item to him.
“She was extremely educated,” Zitzewitz said of his aunt. “She took one college course after another throughout her life.”
When asked about his aunt’s military career, Gus Zitzewitz demurred, explaining she had high security clearance and traveled the world for her job. He said she was stationed at the Pentagon a while and had many friends in Washington, D.C.
“On the outside, she was just like an everyday average person,” he said.
After she retired from the military, Isolde kept up with her friends on the East Coast and managed property in the San Diego area, her nephew said. She also enjoyed cooking.
The wallet and its contents will be shipped to Gus Zitzewitz in Portland for the family to keep.
Olney, the construction superintendent, said it’s only the second time he’s found a wallet on a construction site. His crew found one during a job at Gonzaga University and managed to return it to the owner, who was still alive and in his 90s. When they initially contacted the daughter of the owner, she thought it was a joke, Olney said.
Upchurch, one of the workers who first discovered the wallet, said he couldn’t imagine the hoops Zitzewitz would have had to jump through to restore her military-issued identifications nearly 60 years ago. He’s served in the Army himself and said he knew how difficult it is now.
“I’d love to read that book, man,” Upchurch said, after learning about the wallet owner’s military service relayed by her nephew. “Back then, things were a lot different.”