When Mike Hayes graduated from Rochelle (Ill.) High School last June, he was worried about scraping up enough money for college. His father, Bill, a pharmacist, and mother, Gwen, a grade school teacher, were already stretched to the limit financially after putting four other kids through school. And Hayes's part-time job last year as a drugstore clerk had netted him just $2,500, a fraction of the $28,000 he estimated that four years at the University of Illinois would cost him. Then Hayes, 19, had a brainstorm: Maybe 2.8 million people would each be willing to give him a penny.

Hayes wrote a letter to columnist Bob Greene, syndicated in more than 200 newspapers, and asked him to publish a nationwide plea for one-cent donations. Greene obliged on Sept. 6, printing an address to which readers could send their pennies and quoting Hayes's rationale for the request. "I don't really feel like I'm begging," Hayes wrote. "I honestly believe...that no one will feel that it's a hardship to send a penny to me."

Within two days Rochelle, a farming community of about 9,000, began to experience firsthand the power of the press. "I walked in the first morning," says postmaster Dave Hakanson, "and there were, boom, 3,000, 4,000 pieces of mail." The letters kept on coming, some from as far away as Alaska, with a few generous benefactors contributing as much as $100. At last count, Hayes and his proud parents had received more than 77,000 letters. The take to date exceeds $26,000. "The pennies broke the bank's coin-counting machine three times," he says incredulously. He plans to major in physics and is studying hard. "I got an A on my first calculus exam," he reports, "and a C-plus on my chemistry test." Impressed by his entrepreneurial brilliance, the university radio station has approached him for help with their advertising. "But they don't realize," says Hayes, "that that penny idea is the only idea I've ever had."