The ring cycle: When a class ring goes missing, a Virginia teen despairs


A class ring from Peninsula Catholic High School in Newport News, Va. After 15 years, it was reunited with its owner, Shannon O'Donnell Russell. (Molly Bowes)
John Kelly
Columnist March 23

Shannon O’Donnell had convinced herself that she’d gotten away with it. No one ever had to know.

She was 17 years old and had a reputation in the family as a loser. Not a loser socially or academically. Shannon lost things: one of her grandmother’s pearl earrings, a heart-shaped ring from her other grandmother. Which is why the Hampton, Va., teenager didn’t tell her parents that her class ring was gone.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

We’ll get to how she lost it in a moment, but first let’s revisit her unmasking. Somehow she’d survived senior picture day at her school, Peninsula Catholic High School in Newport News.

Senior portraits invariably include a pose with the sitter’s chin on her hand, showing off her class ring. Shannon wore her aunt’s old class ring instead, one that looked like her Class of 2000 ring: gold with a sapphire stone.

It worked, but a few months later, her mother demanded to see her class ring.

And that’s when Shannon finally broke down and confessed. A year earlier — when she was 16 — she’d gone with friends to Bay Days, an annual carnival in Hampton. As she boarded the Zipper ride, she took the ring off her finger and put it in the pocket of her jeans.

“I thought it was safer there if my hands got sweaty,” she said.

The Zipper started its wild, bone-jarring oscillations.

“On about the third rotation, I heard it fall out,” she said. “There was this clank clank.”

Shannon tried to grab the ring, but the centrifugal forces had her pinned to the cage. When the ride was over, the ring was nowhere to be found. She searched with friends all around the Zipper and even retuned the next day.

No ring.

When she heard the story, her mother was not sympathetic. Then Shannon had to confess to her dad.

“It was just daggers,” she said of his reaction. “He said, ‘I just feel like we aren’t teaching you responsibility if we buy you another one.’ ”

And so they didn’t. Shannon graduated from Peninsula, went to East Carolina University (where she got a class ring that she still has), got married (she now goes by Shannon Russell), became a lawyer and took a job at Barton College in North Carolina, where she is legal counsel.

That would be the end of the story if James Lawrence, a retired Air Force colonel in his 80s, hadn’t been out for a walk in December in his Hampton housing development.

“I saw this little glint of metal and picked it up,” he told me. It was a ring. It was somewhat mashed and out of round, but he could still make out a girl’s name and the name of the school: Peninsula Catholic.

“I just stuck it in an envelope and mailed it to the school,” Lawrence said.

Molly Bowes, who does development and marketing at Peninsula, read the name inside but had no contact information for a Shannon O’Donnell. On Jan. 28, she took a photo of the ring and put it on the school’s alumni Facebook page. Within an hour, Shannon’s friends were tagging her in the post.

Shannon thought they’d been hacked. “Then I thought it was a hoax or a prank,” she said. How could this be her ring? But if it was a hoax, who knew about the ring incident from 15 years earlier?

“Most people probably don’t remember I lost it,” she said, “other than my mother, who has not let it go.”

But what once was lost had now been found, just another in the series of unlikely reunions I’ve been writing about the past few months.

Shannon has no idea how her ring ended up where it did, about six miles from where Bay Days is held.

“I just can’t imagine that someone found the ring and didn’t try to pawn it or sell it for scrap or take the stone out,” she said. “I’m envisioning it’s been on the street for 15 years.”

And there’s this coincidence: Lawrence, the man who found the ring, went to the same school as Shannon. He graduated in 1945, when Peninsula was called St. Vincent’s.

I asked if he had a class ring.

“I got one, but Lord knows where it is,” he said. “Let’s put it this way: If there were a $10,000 reward, I don’t think I could find it.”

Nuts to you!

The squirrels are coming! My fourth annual Squirrel Week kicks off on April 6. This year, we’re throwing a squirrel photography contest. To upload your entry — one per reader — go to wapo.st/squirrelcontest.

I’ll post my favorites online, and the grand-prize winner will receive a $100 gift card. To read the complete contest rules, go to wapo.st/squirrelcontestrules.

Hurry. The deadline is Friday.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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