Mary Barcus Smith holds the ring given to her more than 50 years ago by Leo Richard “Whitey” Schoff. The two had planned to marry, but the young man was killed in Vietnam. She wanted to return the ring to his family. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Mary Barcus Smith took Whitey’s college ring out of the small box she keeps with her jewelry.

It still had the dark, opaque stone in the center, and etched on one side was “66,” the year he graduated.

He gave it to Mary right before he went to Vietnam, and she kept it in her bedroom in her parents’ house in Greenbelt, Md., while he was away.

They had met in college, gotten engaged and planned to marry when he came back.

He thought she was one in a million. She vowed to go to church every day he was gone.

But on Nov. 1, 1967, Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Leo Richard Schoff was killed in Vietnam, devastating his 21-year-old fiancee and both their families. He was 23.

A half-century later, Mary is healed from those times. She is married and a grandmother. But she still has the ring from the young man everyone called Whitey. Recently, she started thinking that she ought to return it to his family. Perhaps his younger brother, Ronald, or another relative might want it.

But family connections had been lost. Whitey’s brother died in 2000. His children never knew Whitey, and they were hard to locate. Last week, with the help of a reporter, a family member was reached and said that Mary should keep the ring.

After all, it is symbol of her life and times.

The ring that Schoff gave to his sweetheart before he went to Vietnam. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

It is also a symbol of a tragic period in American history, and one that is approaching important milestones.

Almost 50 years have passed since the height of the Vietnam War, and the night Mary’s father came to her bedroom and said he had heard from Whitey’s mother that the young man was dead.

It has been more than 50 years since families across the country were getting the same news, as the war’s toll marched toward an eventual total of more than 58,000 Americans.

And it will be 50 years in November since Mary and her older brother drove to Dover Air Force Base to meet Whitey’s body, and then drove 350 miles to his home in a Pennsylvania steel town for his funeral.

She remembers that Whitey was in the casket in his dress blue Marine Corps uniform, and he looked like he was asleep.

She is 71 now and lives with her husband, Tracy, in Annapolis. They have been married for almost 45 years and have a daughter and two grandchildren.

A practical person and a woman of faith, she said she still prays for Whitey every Nov. 1 — All Saints Day.

“Fifty years ago, it was a big part of my life,” she said. “But I’ve always accepted things that happen as God’s will. . . . There’s a reason for things.”

One day last week, she and her husband sat in their home and talked about the war and her long-ago romance. She said she would keep the ring and pass it down to her grandson.

From an old envelope, Mary removed a letter Whitey’s mother had written after his death, and a tiny heart he had carved out of stone in Vietnam and sent to Mary as a keepsake. She received the heart in the mail a few days after he was killed.

“Our loss was a great one but Mary’s was even greater,” Helen Schoff wrote to Mary’s brother and his wife the month after he was killed. “We had and shared him for many years, but her time with him with such a short one.”

“I am proud of her,” she wrote. “My only regret is I never got her for my daughter in law.”

Whitey had grown up in West Homestead, a blue-collar town across the Monongahela River from Pittsburgh and just up the hill from the gigantic Homestead steel works, where he worked summers.

His parents were divorced and his mother worked in a local laundry. Their last name, Schoff, rhymes with loaf.

In 1962 he went off to the College of Steubenville, 60 miles from home, in Steubenville, Ohio.

There, he met Mary Barcus. She was one of five children of an employee of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and was raised in Greenbelt.

She had chosen the school, now the Franciscan University of Steubenville, because it was small, Catholic, co-ed and affordable.

Mary thinks they may have met in the library, but the school was so small that everybody knew everybody. He was handsome, fair-skinned and blond, hence his nickname. She was two years behind him.

He was an English major and planned to become a teacher. As a freshman student worker, he planted a sapling outside a residence hall.

Wally Hobart, a childhood friend, recalled that Whitey was conscientious, and was always the guy who would dive headlong for the loose ball in a basketball game.

He and Mary liked the same things and soon were dating. He didn’t have a car, or much money, so they took walks. In the fall of 1965, he gave her his fraternity pin.

He joined the Marines after graduation and headed for the Corps’ Basic School for officers in Quantico, Va.

Mary, meanwhile, had transferred to the University of Maryland. They saw each other frequently and became engaged in the spring of 1967.

He bought her a diamond ring at a local store. They opened a bank account and started to save money.

They discussed when to get married. Mary talked to her parents and a Catholic priest who was a family friend. Getting married right before Whitey’s deployment was not a good way to start, so they decided to wait.

His going to Vietnam was “a given,” she said. But his tour would only be 13 months.

(Franciscan University/Leo Richard “Whitey” Schoff)

Before he left, he had his picture taken for her and gave her his Steubenville ring. She gave him a rosary and planned to send letters and tape-recorded messages “so he could hear my voice.”

She remembers driving him with her father to the Baltimore airport, and watching him board a plane for California. “That was the last I saw him,” she said. He left for Vietnam on Sept. 30.

On Oct. 10, 1967, Whitey wrote Wally Hobart. He said he had been in Vietnam four days and was stationed near Cam Lo. He was in command of an understrength platoon of jumpy, inexperienced men that had already tangled with the enemy.

“I’ve got a great amount to learn here,” he wrote. “If you can, drop Mary a few lines, okay?”

Three weeks later, Whitey’s company met an enemy force at the village of Thon Bai An. It was a deadly encounter. Seven Marines and two Navy corpsmen were killed, including Whitey.

His mother called to tell Mary. “My father . . . got the phone call,” she remembered.

“I’ll never forget that as long as I live,” she said. “I could tell when he walked into my bedroom that there was something wrong.”

He put his arm around her. She was distraught and had the urge to go immediately to Vietnam to see where Whitey had been.

Her father was so upset that she was afraid he would have a heart attack.

“I felt like, ‘I have to be strong because I don’t want anything to happen to dad,’ ” she said.

The next day, the family went to Mass at their parish church, St. Hugh of Grenoble, in Greenbelt.

When Mary got home from the funeral, she found that her parents, seeking to ease her anguish, had removed Whitey’s mementos from her bedroom.

“They had taken everything down and put it in a box in the attic, which bothered me, but I didn’t say anything to them,” she said.

She went back to school but would often be overwhelmed as she walked the corridors at the university. “All of a sudden it would hit me that he was gone,” she said.

She removed the diamond from her engagement ring. With a spoon, she dug a hole under a tree in her parents’ back yard and buried the ring. She doesn’t know if it’s still there. “I haven’t checked in 50 years,” she said.

Some of Mary Barcus Smith’s keepsakes connected to Leo Richard Schoff. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

She had the diamond set in a golden pin she found in the shape of a wishbone.

Gradually, Mary resumed socializing. In 1970, she met Tracy. They were married in 1971. She told Tracy about Whitey, and he expressed admiration for the young man.

She said she hasn’t thought much about how life might have been had Whitey lived. “For some reason, the marriage was not meant to be,” she said.

Fifty years later, the Vietnam War is long over. The famous Homestead steel works where Whitey worked is gone. And the church where his funeral Mass was held is closed and has been sold.

But in Steubenville, the tree he planted outside the St. Francis Residence Hall is still there.

It is a little-leaf linden, a school spokesman said last week. On a stone pedestal nearby is a weathered metal plaque that reads: “Richard ‘Whitey’ Schoff (’66) planted this tree in 1962. He died in Vietnam in 1967.”

The tree is 40 feet tall.