Getting a high school class ring is a rite of passage—one of those memorable experiences on the road to adulthood.

North Stafford High School graduate James Mills, class of 1994, doesn’t remember much about receiving his ring. But he does remember exactly how he lost it. And he will never forget how he got it back.

“I was in the marching band after school, and I put the ring on my music stand,” he said last week. “When I came back in, it was gone.”

Mills looked on the floor around the band room, but, “I think I kind of gave up fairly quickly because I knew exactly where I left it. I just chalked it up to I’d never see it again.”

Mills, 43, hadn’t thought about the ring in ages. Until Tuesday, when he received a voicemail at Ebenezer Church in Stafford, where he is director of technology.

“It sounded like an older gentleman, and he said, ‘I think I have something that’s yours,’ ” Mills said. “I was a little worried at first, but it was a local number, so I figured I’d call back.”

Enter Paul Neal, a longtime area high school football coach, who started the football program at the newly opened Brooke Point High School in 1994. For a long-forgotten reason, Neal and some other coaches were on the roof at Brooke Point in 1995 when Neal spotted something shiny.

He picked up a gold class ring with a purple stone, which has the name “James” on one side, above brass-section instruments. A wolverine and “1994” are on the other. Engraved inside the ring is the name “James Mills.”

“I contacted the school a couple times to see if they could tell me anything about James Mills,” Neal said, “but I never did get any results of where I might be able to find him.”

While Mills lives in Stafford again now, shortly after his graduation, he and his mother, Carrie, moved to Florida. There, they reunited with his Navy father, Barry, who preceded his family there so Mills could finish out his senior year at North Stafford. Mills soon left Florida for college in Texas.

With no luck getting contact information for the ring’s owner, Neal, now 76, put it in a drawer and forgot about it until recently, when he came across it as he was looking through some old papers in his Spotsylvania County home.

Last week, Neal was with a group of coaches and school officials who meet at Wegmans each Tuesday morning to “drink coffee and tell each other tales.” Someone mentioned a friend—a World War II veteran—who’d lost his dog tags at the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 or early 1945. More than 50 years later, in 1998, someone found the dog tags, located their owner and returned the tags to him.

“It was fresh in my mind—that ring—so I mentioned it to Coach [Rick] Holcomb, and he said you can find anything if he happens to be on Facebook,” Neal said. “He asked, ‘What’s the name?’ and a minute later, he said, ‘I got him right here.’

“It said he worked at Ebenezer; he was a 1994 graduate. I got up from the table right then and called. I told him that I thought I had something he might’ve lost.”

Neal quizzed Mills a bit—“I wanted to make sure the ring was his.” When Neal was satisfied that the ring did, indeed, belong to this James Mills, they made arrangements to meet.

“He came in the house, and we shot the bull for a while,” Neal said. “He seems like a mighty nice young man.”

Neither Neal nor Mills has any idea how the ring wound up on the roof at Brooke Point.

“I thought maybe he’d broken up with a girlfriend, who got mad and threw it up on the roof of the building,” Neal said, laughing.

While Mills assured Neal that wasn’t the case, he does have a connection to Brooke Point now. During his college years in Texas, he met the woman who is now his wife. Jeanne Mills has worked as an English teacher at Brooke Point since 2004.

Mills was shocked that Neal held on to the ring for more than 20 years.

“At some point,” he said, “you just throw something like that away.”

Mills isn’t sure what he’ll do with the ring now.

“I haven’t put it on yet. I think it will go over my knuckle, but I’m not sure how well it would come off,” he said with a laugh. “It’s sitting on my nightstand. It’s just memories now. It’s one of those mementos you keep hold of, and I didn’t have it.”

Neal was glad to reunite Mills with the reminder of his high school days.

“I’m just really glad he got his high school ring back,” Neal said. “It means something to him.”

As does the perseverance and kindness of a stranger.

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Laura L. Hutchison is a former reporter and editor at The Free Lance–Star. She now teaches high school English in Delaware.