When Wally Cole of Shell Point stood in the gym at Beaufort High School on Friday and held his class ring for the first time in more than 50 years, the memories came flooding back.
Cole, who lost his class ring sometime after graduating in 1966, reminisced about growing up in Port Royal amidst nine brothers and sisters, running on the track team for Beaufort High and getting stationed in Germany while serving in the U.S. Air Force shortly after his high school graduation.
At a Veterans Day ceremony at Beaufort High on Friday, Cole was reunited with his class ring in front of a few hundred students and faculty members.
It was a reunion years in the making — with a ring that had been lost and forgotten at least three times and traveled from Port Royal to possibly Germany and Myrtle Beach and then sat for years in a jewelry box in Little Rock, Arkansas, before ending up in a guidance counselor’s desk at Beaufort High.
Late last week, when a new guidance counselor was getting settled into her office, she found a manilla envelope dated February 25, 2015, in the back of a drawer.
Inside the envelope was a 1966 Beaufort High class ring and a letter from a man named Jerry Maddox from Little Rock.
Since the ring was identified as a found item, it was handed over to the school’s resource officer, Eric Hayes of the Beaufort Police Department.
Hayes, who said he was having a slow day, went to the school’s library and spent several hours combing through yearbooks.
“Knowing the kind of sentimental value those things typically have and knowing it was from so long ago, I really wanted to make sure I made every attempt to track down the owner before turning it in to the evidence locker at the police department and just letting it gather dust,” he said Thursday.
Engravings on the ring helped Hayes narrow down his search.
The ring belonged to a graduate of 1966 who ran track, was a member of the science club and had the initials of either M.E.E. or W.C.C. — written in cursive, it was hard for Hayes to identify the letters at first.
Hayes made three unsuccessful calls before trying Cole. He found his name listed under the track and field roster, discovered that the man still lived in the Beaufort area and figured he’d give it one more try.
When Cole answered the phone and Hayes explained the situation, both Cole and Hayes said they were in disbelief.
“At first, after finding the ring, I don’t know how optimistic I was because it was 40 or 50 years ago,” Hayes said. “But once he described it and said it was his, it definitely was something I was proud to be a part of.”
When and where the ring went missing is a matter of much debate.
For more than 50 years, Cole thought he had lost his ring in Germany while working on F-4 aircrafts with the U.S. Air Force.
However, the man who found the ring was never in Germany and can only trace it back to what he believes was Myrtle Beach.
Maddox of Little Rock was in possession of the ring for nearly 30 years.
He said he thinks the ring was uncovered while he was on a mission trip in Myrtle Beach in July 1991, but after letting it sit in a jewelery box for decades, he’s no longer sure about its origin.
“I wish I could make it the story of the century and tell you exactly where it came from,” he said Thursday.
About four years ago, a burglar broke into Maddox’s house while he and his wife were on vacation.
When the couple returned and began taking inventory of their belongings for insurance purposes, Maddox spotted the ring.
After forgetting about it for such a long time, Maddox decided to send the ring, along with a letter explaining his portion of the story behind it, to the high school and leave it to them to try and locate its owner.
Maddox said he received an initial response at the time from someone who said they had received the ring and message, but he heard nothing else about it — until earlier this week.
When Hayes, the school resource officer, called to inform Maddox that he had, in fact, found the owner after all these years, Maddox said he was shocked.
“I had totally forgotten about it,” Maddox said. “... When Hayes called me a few days ago, it sounded like the school was about as efficient as I was.”
Although the full story behind the lost ring may never be known in its entirety, Cole said he was just overwhelmed by all the work that went into getting it back to him.
“I salute those who worked diligently to finding myself and the ring and bring another marriage together,” he said. ”I’m really, really excited about what they did for this.”
Cole’s father died when he was 11, so his mom and siblings scraped together their money to get him and his twin brother their class rings and letterman jackets upon graduation, he said.
When presented with the ring Friday, Cole smiled proudly, reflected on those memories and slipped the ring back on — in spite of the fact that it only fit his pinky finger now.
“When you come from such a large family and you’re not the wealthiest in the world, for them to find something that was a keepsake so to speak and really a reward for graduating, it’s emotional,” he said.