At Naval Academy, losing ring is big thing

Sleuth: Alumni worker hunts missing treasures and helps get them home.

July 08, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Not long ago, the phone rang at the house in the East Texas pine forests where Frank M. Wroblewski was spending a quiet retirement.

The caller, a woman from the Naval Academy, told him that photographs of a gold Class of 1963 ring had just arrived at the school, inside an envelope with a Vietnam postmark. The ring appeared to be inscribed with the name Wroblewski. Had Wroblewski, the woman inquired, perchance lost his ring?

Wroblewski's memory rewound more than three decades to a sweltering day in Vietnam. He had been racing across a rice paddy, bullets tearing past him, when his ring slid off his finger and, seemingly, into oblivion.

"I figured it was gone forever," says Wroblewski, 61. "The farthest thing from my mind was that some lady would call me up and tell me that somebody had my ring."

That lady is Timothy Elizabeth Woodbury, ring sleuth.

From a small office on the second floor of the academy's alumni association, Woodbury, 32, spends part of every day hunting for lost rings and soothing the tattered nerves of bereft graduates.

The heavy hulks of gold are a precious symbol of Annapolis pedigree, dipped in water from the Seven Seas and conferred only on those who survive four punishing years at the officer-training college.

Their value as status symbols is such that graduates - sometimes called ring knockers - have been known to flaunt their Annapolis laurels to lesser mortals by tapping their rings against a table so all can hear. One graduate, astronaut Alan B. Shepard, took his to the moon.

"When I have people reporting rings lost, missing or stolen, they're absolutely sick about it," Woodbury says. "They're just devastated. They don't want a replacement. They want their ring back, and no other ring is going to do."

Woodbury had been hired by the alumni association as a part-time magazine editor in 1998 but pounced on a job, formally called ring bank coordinator, when it opened a year later. "It had fascinated me - the stories of how the rings show up and of getting them home," she says.

No story is quite the same. One ring was lost while snorkeling in Hawaii, another while gardening in Annapolis. One was stolen at a beach party on Malta, another left in a jacket taken to the cleaners in Tucson, Ariz.

There is no formula for predicting where they will turn up. Rings have been found amid several hundred tons of recycled newspapers, on beaches in the Virgin Islands and beneath suburban lawns being dug up to install decks.

Woodbury compiles lost-ring reports from alumni. She fields calls from across the globe from people claiming to have found rings.

And she searches on the Internet. Academy rings auctioned on eBay have fetched as much as $2,000. So Woodbury fires off silver-tongued e-mails to sellers, asking them to cancel the auction and let the original owner negotiate a return of the ring.

She has even sought a hand from the diplomatic community. When the letter from Vietnam arrived, she asked the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington to translate it. She mailed the results to Wroblewski, who began a correspondence with the letter's author, a Vietnamese gold dealer.

When a lost ring surfaces, Woodbury determines its class year by studying photos in a pair of large albums that catalog the design of every class ring since 1869. Ship wheels, anchors and mermaids are common design motifs, but none is alike. Then she scours computer databases for the addresses of original owners or their descendants.

The rate of return is low: Although 500 rings are currently reported missing with her office, just 10 or 20 turn up each year.

Those finds are of such interest to graduates that the alumni magazine runs a regular column called "Ring Story."

To outsiders, the idea of a college having a ring detective defies easy explanation.

"I was pretty shocked to hear they kind of had a department that handles that - I actually just expected a blowoff," says Jared Richardson, a pawnshop owner in Albuquerque, N.M., who bought a Class of 1926 ring from a customer and then worked with Woodbury to return it to the children of its late owner. "Who's to think that the Naval Academy would have a budget for that?"

The academy's alumni association has had a ring bank office since 1982. But Woodbury is the first coordinator to actively look for rings, taking the hunt to the Internet and doubling or tripling the number of recoveries each year.

"eBay is great because it brings sellers out of hiding," she says. But the sellers know the rings' value on the open market, and more often than not they ignore Woodbury's appeals. "Each one is a race: Can I get to a seller before the collectors make their mark? Can I locate the owner before it's too late?"

There is nothing illegal about most of these sales, Woodbury says, because most sellers acquire the rings legitimately. In some cases, rings enter the marketplace when the descendants of graduates auction them as part of an estate sale.

Auction canceled

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