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Seven Years and Seven Miles
Posted 03/13/2007 11:00PM

Tommy Adams was heartsick when seven years ago boating on a tributary of the Tennessee River, his SMA class ring slipped from his finger and floated to the murky bottom. Over the years his son had offered to buy a replacement ring but Tommy declined the offer. This March, a good Samaritan with the name of Eric Smith happened upon the ring, seven miles down river and buried in the bank. Below is a news piece written by Eric's sister Venita Helton. Tommy, Eric and SAS Alumni Director Elizabeth Duncan were featured in newspaper articles and television news about the wonderful story of the ring and it's return. Many thanks to Susan Askew from the University of the South's alumni office for getting the ball rolling. Tommy, who lives in Huntsville, is the owner of Rise Realty.

Class Ring Found After Seven-Year Swim
By Venita Helton

Tommy Adams never thought he'd see his high school ring again. Seven years ago he jumped out of his boat into the Flint River near Huntsville, AL and the ring slipped off his finger into 15 feet of muddy water. He and his son dove for it but the water was deep and murky. Tommy, a realtor in Huntsville, was “devastated.” The gold ring set with a garnet stone was more than just a valuable piece of jewelry—it represented the years he'd spent in a military boarding school in Sewanee, Tennessee among people who had adopted him as family. He’d worn the ring since 1956, and 44 years later the river claimed it.

Late in 2006, Tommy’s son offered to buy him a replacement ring for Christmas. Tommy said, “No thanks; it just wouldn't be the same.”

Two weeks ago, Eric Smith of Cullman stepped out of his kayak to stretch his legs on a riverbank near Ditto’s Landing in Huntsville. “I saw a small flash of yellow in the mud and picked it up. I couldn't believe it was a men’s class ring,” Smith said.

Smith is used to looking for small objects in big areas. Smith is a naval aviator who now works for Air Evac Lifeteam as an air ambulance helicopter pilot. From 300 feet up, wrecked cars look like toys and landing pads consist of whatever small patch of ground or road Smith can find—often in the dark. Smith has the aviator’s “thousand-yard gaze,” but even he was amazed when he spotted the ring in the mud.

The gold was worn smooth in places, making identification difficult. Smith and his father examined the ring with a jeweler’s loupe and thought they could make out the year—1958—and the name “Thomas E.” All that remained of the last name was the letter “A,” but Smith thought the ring might have come from the University of the South in Sewanee.

Unfortunately, Susan Askew of the University Alumni Association could find no record of a “Thomas E.” with a last name beginning with “A” who had graduated in 1958. Smith studied the ring again and described a panther above two crossed rifles with a bugle on one side, and on the other a pair of eagle wings above a shield, embedded with the Bible and a cross or possibly a wheat stalk. After close inspection he made out the words “Sewanee Military Academy.”

Armed with Smith’s new information, Askew got excited. She said that while the ring was not from the University, there was a Sewanee Military Academy whose name was changed to St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School 25 years ago. Askew called Lizzie Duncan, the Alumni Director at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee, who researched the school records and found the owner, Thomas E. Adams. He had graduated in 1956, not 1958, but the worn condition of the ring accounted for the visual discrepancy. Duncan said that according to the 1956 yearbook, Adams was one of the Captains for Company B his senior year. He played football, wrestled and was a varsity swimmer. She was impressed that Smith’s sense of honor and integrity had prompted him to search for the owner. According to her, “Sewanee Military School was definitely built on honor.”

Tommy Adams was dumbfounded when Duncan called to ask if he'd lost his class ring in the Tennessee River. Not only had Smith found his ring, but it had been carried some 7 miles from the smaller river where he'd lost it so many years ago.

When Smith was asked during his “reverse treasure hunt” why he was going to so much effort to find the owner of the 51-year-old ring, he said he felt the man or his heirs would be overjoyed to get it back. “I’d get more satisfaction out of seeing him grin than I’d get out of keeping it,” Smith said. “I just hope he’s still alive.”

Yesterday Smith met Adams on the banks of the Tennessee River and gave him his long-lost ring. He got to see that grin he was hoping for.

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