If you’ve ever misplaced, or even lost, something that belonged to someone who has died, you know the panic that arises inside your gut.
That thing – a ring, a cufflink, a favorite T-shirt, whatever it was that reminded you of your special person – is gone. And with that goes a piece of them that might not resurface.
Now, imagine the opposite feeling when that thing is recovered, even if you’ve more or less given up hope and forgotten about it. Sheer jubilation.
Debbie Watts Burdette and her three older siblings know that feeling, ever since their late father’s college ring was returned to them in early August. It’s understandable. Their father, Moultrie B. Watts, died more than 10 years ago. And his ring? The N.C. State College ring with the big red jewel in the middle was last seen in 1974.
The story of the ring’s recovery is all the more remarkable when you hear about the series of events that led it to boomerang from Cary to the Outer Banks and back to Cary.
“It’s something of Dad,” says Burdette, who has lived in Cary since she was a child. “Having something else that belonged to him was just kind of neat after 10 years, and we all remembered it.”
It took the curiosity and kindness of Cary jeweler Steve Prutsman, along with a woman who owns a very powerful metal detector, to bring the ring back to Watts’ family.
“It all fell into place,” Prutsman said. “It was like the ring was meant to come back home. Eventually it made its way back home.”
Caked in sand
Prutsman was supposed to be at the dentist.
But on Tuesday, Aug. 9, his dentist canceled the appointment, and he reported to work at Treasure Isle Jewelers on East Chatham Street in Cary, where he has worked for a little more than three years.
That day, a regular customer brought in the class ring and some earrings that her metal detector had found on Hatteras. The ring was unearthed outside the cottage she was staying in. The store bought the jewelry, eventually to send it away to be melted.
The ring was so caked in sand that it took at least 45 minutes in the cleaner before Prutsman could get a good look at it. Once he did, he saw engraved in script on the inside: “Moultrie B. Watts, Raleigh.” It also had the Greek letters of pi, kappa and alpha, but no year.
The jewelry store doesn’t often get class rings, with Watts’ ring the first to come to the store in at least eight months, Prutsman said. If a ring comes in, it typically is the owner who is selling it, and he or she no longer has a need for it. The store also doesn’t buy a lot of gold, nor do they get jewelry with complete names.
With such an unusual name, and with a Triangle connection, Prutsman was curious about who Watts was.
“We knew this wasn’t the woman’s who sold it,” he said. “That made it more interesting.”
Prutsman went online and quickly found websites listing Watts as a real estate appraiser – and his obituary.
“I was curious to see if he had any family,” Prutsman said. He started making his way through Watts’ next of kin to see who he might track down.
The phone call
Burdette was working at home when the phone for her landline rang. She didn’t know why Treasure Isle would be calling her, so she didn’t answer. But then her cell phone rang with the same number, and she wondered why.
“We have something we think might have belonged to your father,” Prutsman told her.
“You found his N.C. State class ring,” she immediately responded.
She told him she would be there in 30 minutes. Tears formed as she drove from her Cary home to the store on the other side of town.
“All I can say is I just sat there and I was crying and laughing,” Burdette said.
Burdette, 56, isn’t positive, but she’s pretty sure her father lost the ring when the family took a vacation in 1974 to Hatteras, back when she was 14 or 15. She said her father had lost some weight, making the ring loose on his finger. A big storm came, she remembered, and her father had to help her grandfather, who had fallen.
“I remember this trip,” Burdette said. “I guess it’s in that chaos he lost it.”
She and her older siblings – Holt Watts, Shelton Watts and Laura Davenport, who all still live in southwestern Wake County – have specific memories of their father’s ring. When the kids acted up, their father turned the class ring so the stone would be on the inside, and then he tapped them on the head.
“It definitely caught your attention, and you knew you were misbehaving,” Burdette said.
Worth more than money
Burdette and her siblings were close with their father, a former Air Force captain who appeared stern on the outside but had a “phenomenal sense of humor,” Burdette said.
Moultrie Watts, who went to Broughton High School, graduated from N.C. State in 1952 with a chemical engineering degree. But he found his passion working as a real estate appraiser, eventually teaching classes on the subject. He also was active in Cary, helping build St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and working with Dorcas Ministries. He was on the Cary Board of Adjustment and ran, unsuccessfully, for Town Council.
He was married for more than 50 years to Sabra and died March 15, 2006, of pneumonia after battling kidney cancer.
Burdette worked with him after she graduated from college. Her work information also is online, which made it easier for Prutsman to track her down.
Prutsman, 52, has loved being in the jewelry business since he got a part-time job at a jewelry shop in Rocky Mount when he was 16 and still in high school. He continued to work in jewelry stores while at Barton College in Wilson. It’s a little mechanical, a little artistic, he says. You meet nice people who sometimes become repeat customers, too.
Prutsman knows that jewelry is sentimental, and that’s why the shop gave Watts’ class ring to Burdette and her siblings at no cost. He declined to reveal how much was paid for the ring, but said it could be sold for $800 to $1,000 retail.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” he said. “Some good karma for us. I would hope somebody would look out for me if something like that happened.”
Burdette and her siblings are debating who will get custody of the ring, but already it makes Burdette feel her father’s presence.
As she was telling me about her father’s history with N.C. State, she leaned toward me. I thought she was talking more directly into my recorder when she loudly enunciated, “I went to UNC-Chapel Hill” and paused, as if waiting for a response.
“Were you talking to the ring?” I asked, looking at the chunky ring sitting next to my recorder.
“Yes,” she said, and burst into laughter.