It was Labor Day weekend of 1974 when 22-year-old Beth Bunch, walking with her family just north of the St. Johns County Pier, noticed a small glimmer sinking into the sand at her feet. Balancing her toddler daughter on her hip, she kneeled down to find a 1974 St. Augustine High School class ring.
Turning it over in her hand, she saw that it was gold, set with a sapphire and engraved with the initials “GLW.”
At about the same time, just around the bend of State Road A1A, college freshman Gary Leroy Wall was pedaling home from a day at the beach on his 10-speed bicycle when he stopped short.
His class ring was gone.
“It just wasn’t there,” he told The Record recently. “Whether it sank in the sand or what, I don’t know. I’m halfway home and realize I don’t have it, turn around and go back and can’t find it. And so, that was the end of the story.”
Only it wasn’t.
On another Labor Day weekend — Sept. 3, 2016, to be precise — a series of chance encounters brought the two strangers back to the same stretch of sand where the ring was lost and, after 42 years, returned.
LOSING THE RING
Beth Bunch and her husband, Tommy, of Washington, Georgia, have vacationed in St. Augustine with family for one week out of almost every year since 1972. It was on one of these family trips, on a beach walk with her parents, sister and brother-in-law when Beth picked up the ring.
With a swimsuit on, she handed the ring to brother-in-law Greg Denard to put in his pocket for safe keeping.
“In all the keeping up with the baby and stuff …” Tommy Bunch said, reflecting on the day.
“We forgot about it,” Beth Bunch finished.
After returning to Georgia, Denard slipped the ring into his jewelry box, where it stayed, out of sight and out of mind for four decades.
Meanwhile, Wall returned to life as an accounting major at Trevecca Nazarine College in Nashville, Tennessee. Although the ring was “a big deal,” he said, having purchased it himself his junior year of high school for about $150, while working part time and saving for college and a car, he wasn’t shaken up by its loss.
“I’m matter-of-fact about those types of things,” he said. “If there is something that I can do about it, I’ll do about it, and if there’s not, what’s the use of worrying? It’s done. That may sound callous, but do you really want to lose sleep for weeks and weeks over something you couldn’t have helped?”
With the ring forgotten, life moved on.
For Tommy and Beth, that meant family, careers and retirements, four decades of family vacations to St. Augustine, watching the city grow and change as they transitioned from their first trips with a high chair strapped to the roof of the car, to SUVs accommodating the comfortable chaos of two grown children and five grandchildren.
For Gary Wall, that meant a full life in Northeast Florida, from college graduation and working with his father at his St. Augustine family business, Circle W Auto Parts, to two graduate degrees, a move to Jacksonville, business ventures and retirements, and raising children and grandchildren. He now operates a local food truck in Jacksonville, Maw Maw’s Kitchen, with his wife, Kathy Wall, as well as a used bookselling business, Treehouse Books and More.
A SECOND CHANCE
Then, around Christmas of 2015, the ring re-emerged — in conversation — as the Bunch and Denard families sat together recounting those early vacations to St. Augustine.
“We were talking about how much fun we used to have,” Beth Bunch said, when the day they found the class ring came up in conversation, and a flash of memory lit up Denard’s eyes. He went into his jewelry box and came back with the ring, handing it to Beth.
“I started crying,” Beth Bunch said. “I just swelled up and started crying. Just the thought that we can give it back to [its owner], it’s awesome.”
For Beth and Tommy Bunch, having the ring in their possession again evoked memories of that day in St. Augustine as well as a strong desire to return it to its owner.
“To find something that is valuable to someone else and to lose it, and to all of a sudden find it again, was really, very emotional,” Tommy Bunch said.
In July, Tommy and Beth returned to St. Augustine for their annual family vacation with the ring in hand.
FINDING THE OWNER
That’s when I stumbled into the story. A rookie photojournalist in my second week at the St. Augustine Record, I set out to Washington Oaks State Park to photograph its annual fishing clinic, where Tommy Bunch happened to be with 11-year-old grandson Noah Ezzell, and two other family members from Jacksonville (Jonathan Ezzell, his daughter’s brother-in-law, and his son, Eli Ezzell).
He stopped me.
“Excuse me, do you work for the newspaper?”
“Maybe you can help me.”
And just like that, a search for the ring’s owner had begun. Knowing the initials (GLW) and that it was likely a man’s ring, I reached out to Ellen Partin Roberts, who runs the St. Augustine High School Class of 1974 Reunion page on Facebook. She was able to identify Wall through her yearbook.
From there, I attempted to contact him through phone numbers listed online. When I was unsuccessful, I found his Facebook page and sent a message. Unable to get through on Facebook, I did find there that Wall was living in Jacksonville and attending Oasis Church of North Florida. I called, left my number with office manager Melissa Hott, who passed it along. After a little while, Wall called back.
“When I heard it, I was just blown away,” he said, as we sat together talking on the porch of his Jacksonville home the following morning. “After all these years.”
RETURN OF THE RING
On the morning of Sept. 3, in the drizzly aftermath of Hurricane Hermine and a five-hour journey from Washington, Georgia, Gary Wall, Beth Bunch and Tommy Bunch met for the first time under the pavilion of the St. Johns County Pier, alongside the beach where their lives somewhat intersected 42 years before. It was there that Tommy and Beth Bunch returned Wall’s lost class ring.
“It’s still a brand-new ring,” Wall said, smiling as he slipped it onto his hand alongside his college ring. “I guess it’s what you would call new old stock.”
Laughing and talking for an hour as the rain poured down around them, they exchanged introductions and stories of their experiences from years, as a native resident and as longtime vacationers, in a changing St. Augustine landscape.
“I feel like I have a new friend,” Beth Bunch said.
Before parting ways, Wall offered to give the Bunches a native’s tour of the city.
“I’m looking forward to that this is not being the end of the story,” Tommy Bunch said, as they accepted his offer and made plans to keep in contact over future vacations.
“It’s just the beginning,” Wall said.