Scuba diver finds decades-old class ring and tracks down the owner
By CATHY FREE | Special To The Washington Post | Published: July 5, 2019
In 13 years of scuba diving with a metal detector in shallow lakes and ponds throughout the Boston area, Luke Berube has found valuable coins, platinum jewelry, a colonial shoe buckle from the mid-1700s and much more.
Finding buried treasure is a hobby for Berube, and part of the fun is sometimes reuniting his finds with the person who lost them. But until last month, there was always one kind of treasure that eluded him: a high school class ring.
"For whatever reason, I always wanted to find one," said Berube, 29, who is from Orleans on Cape Cod, about 90 miles southeast of Boston. "And even better, I thought it would be fun to reunite the owner with it."
On June 15, it finally happened for Berube when he went to a small pond an hour from his home and swam about 10 feet down to the bottom with his underwater metal detector. All of a sudden his detector signaled, and he dug with his hands about five inches down in the muck — and that was when he discovered a tarnished 1960 men's class ring with a blue stone and gold crest.
Excitedly swimming to the surface, Berube took a closer look. The insignia on the ring read "Gate of Heaven," and the initials "WJW" were etched inside.
"I thought, I'm going to go home and do some research," said Berube. "Since the ring had a few clues, I felt it might be possible to find out where it came from."
He soon learned that Gate of Heaven was a small Catholic high school in South Boston that had been closed in 2009 and was demolished last year to make way for a parking lot. But through a private Facebook page for alumni, Berube was able to leave a message and get a photo of the lost ring posted on the site, along with his contact information.
Although he knew it was a long shot to find the owner of the 59-year-old ring, within hours he received a text from Christine Wadel of North Attleborough, Massachusetts. She said she believed that the ring belonged to her father, a 1960 Gate of Heaven graduate whose initials were WJW - William Joseph Wadel.
Bill Wadel, now 77, is a retired financial controller who lives in Spotsylvania County, Virginia.
Christine Wadel grabbed her phone and texted her father: "Dad, did you have a class ring?"
His reply: "Yes."
"Did you lose one?"
"It's been found!" wrote Christine, sending him a photo of the ring taken by Berube.
"Yes," deadpanned her dad. "I agree."
Laughing at her father's response, Christine Wadel then texted Berube a high school photo of her father, along with a copy of his Gate of Heaven diploma.
She got in touch with Berube, and they talked on the phone.
"She was ecstatic that I'd found her dad's ring," said Berube. "And I was ecstatic that the person who it had belonged to was still alive."
Bill Wadel said he hadn't thought about his lost class ring in decades, but he remembers when it went missing.
"I gave it to my high school girlfriend in the late 1950s, and she somehow lost it but wasn't sure where," he said in an interview with The Washington Post. "After that happened, I figured it was gone forever."
Now he realizes that his high school sweetheart probably had gone swimming. He said he was shocked someone actually found the ring.
"It's unbelievable to think that my old ring was sitting in a pond for six decades, and Luke found it," he said. "What are the odds?"
Berube, who initially used a metal detector to look for treasures above ground, said he took up diving to relax after work (he does detail work, spraying protective coatings on pickup trucks) and escape the noise of the world for a while.
"You're not talking to anybody underwater - you're just listening to the sound of yourself breathing and the sound of your metal detector," said Berube. "I love that there's an entire different world down there to explore."
People who lose their wedding or engagement rings underwater in the Boston area frequently contact him through the website the Ring Finders, and Berube will suit up in scuba gear at no charge to search for them.
"Every ring has a story attached to it," he said. "The truth is, I just enjoy looking for them."
Because the vast majority of the treasures he finds on his own at the bottom of lakes and ponds aren't inscribed with names or dates, Berube's hobby has provided him with a large collection of rings and rare coins over the years.
"I've probably found more than 400 rings, most of them junk rings," he said. "I also find a lot of trash - beer cans, pop cans, old cellphones, big chunks of metal. So to find a class ring was something special. And it was rewarding to me to know that this story would have a happy ending."
After cleaning the tarnish off the Gate of Heaven ring so that it gleamed again, Berube arranged to meet Christine Wadel and give her the class ring so that she could pass it along to her father a week after he found it.
"I was impressed that he went to so such much time and effort to get that ring back to my dad," she said. "Luke's kindness and generosity is incredible."
When his daughter presented him with the ring in a decorative box, Bill Wadel couldn't stop smiling. His old class ring barely fit, but he knew just what to do with it.
"I looked at my wife and said, 'You want it?' and she put it on her pinkie finger," he said. "We've been married almost 50 years."
Then Wadel picked up his cellphone and texted Berube.
"I'll never learn," he wrote. "I gave the ring to another gal. Her name is Pam."