Fellowship of the Ring

A fraternal symbol of unity is found in an unlikely place.

Last winter, among the military community in Georgia’s Muscogee County, construction worker Russ Lucas from upstate New York was six months into contracted work at Fort Benning Army infantry base. Lucas was building 60 miles of tank trails when something caught his eye.

“I was operating a bulldozer and had just exited the machine,” said Lucas, “when I noticed a small red stone on the ground that looked out of place. I bent down and picked it up. It was a ring – a class ring of some sort. My first thought was that a co-worker had lost it. After checking, that wasn’t the case.” From that moment on, 59-year-old Lucas challenged himself to do what he thought was the best thing to do – find the rightful owner.

Lucas had never heard of Stetson University, which the ring depicted along with the class year 1966, and on the inside, the engraving of “LBH.” Finding Stetson University on the web was only the first task of many that Lucas, and others, would press through.

“I took the call from Mr. Lucas,” said Alumni Relations Administrative Secretary Cathy Foster. “After hanging up with him, I pulled a list of all of our alumni and sorted it by class year and had found an LBH. Unfortunately, we had lost contact with him or her and didn’t have any current telephone or address information.” Foster did a preliminary search in the Fort Benning area, but didn’t come up with anything concrete. She thought she had the right person however, because LBH had graduated with the title of Lt. Colonel – a possible relation to being at Fort Benning.

“I went home and slept on it that night. And I know this may sound strange,” Foster continued, “but in the middle of the night I thought, ‘if Alumni Relations didn’t have the most current contact information of LBH, maybe ROTC did?’” The next morning, Foster contacted Stetson’s Senior Military Science ROTC Instructor LTC Oakland McCulloch.

LTC McCulloch initiated the search. He didn’t have any contact information for LBH, so he sent an email to a few ROTC alumni who graduated in 1965 and ’66. Mr. Evans Edinger ’65 responded to his email, recommending that McCulloch contact Tom LaSalle ’65 – Edinger remembered LaSalle was LBH’s best man at his wedding in 1999 and thought he would have his current contact information. He was right.

Originally from Lynchburg, Va., LBH, Les B. Hargrave ’66, came to Stetson in 1964 after graduating from the Indian River Junior College (IRJC) in Fort Pierce, Fla. He competed for several scholarships at IRJC and received a work grant to attend Stetson, and later, Stetson Law School in St. Petersburg.

“Back in the day, my graduate school deferment was canceled, and I was a candidate for the draft,” said Hargrave. “At the time, one had to remain in the top 10 percent of their graduate school class to remain deferred from the draft. I was not so fortunate, so decided to ‘get ahead of the learning curve’ and enlist.

Russ Lucas
Construction worker Russ Lucas discovered Les Hargrave's lost ring at Fort Benning, Ga. last January, and took the time to track Hargrave down on the opposite coast.

“I graduated from Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning in July 1968 and was deployed to Vietnam in July 1969, returning in July 1970. It was in the early spring of 1968 during an ‘Escape and Evasion’ exercise around 10 at night. I was attempting to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp and was in the act of overpowering a guard. It was raining and very muddy. In the wrestling that ensued, the ring slipped off my finger. The exercise halted, and my colleagues and I began to search the grounds for the ring to no avail. It was a graduating gift from my grandparents. Although dejected, over time I forgot about the lost ring.”

Hargrave’s class ring would sit on a U.S. Army base buried in the dirt for 43 years, during which time nine American presidents would lead the country and deploy hundreds of thousands of combat-ready troops across the globe for major wars and numerous peacekeeping missions. A multitude of infantry brigades, Ranger regiments and even scout dogs, focused on their training mission, would pass by the gold, gemstone band – perhaps returning several more times to pass by, or perhaps never returning home at all.

A Stetson symbol reunites a band of brothers

After retiring from a career in the U.S. Army, and earning the CPA designation, Hargrave led the St. Lucie County, Fla., Chamber of Commerce as its Executive Director for several years. “My current wife is a native Washingtonian,” said Hargrave. “We had visited Washington several times, so, in 2003, we decided we wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest.” Hargrave is now Budget Manager for Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

“When I got the call from Ms. Foster, disbelief pretty well sums it up,” said Hargrave. “I had purchased another Stetson class ring some years later, which I still wear today. I just had a tough time believing that Mr. Lucas would go out of his way to call Stetson and begin the discovery process that led me to him.”

Before mailing it to Hargrave, Lucas took the time while on vacation in Watertown, N.Y., to purchase a little white ring box. “It was only fitting to mail it in a bamboo treasure chest,” said Lucas, “since I knew it was a treasured piece.”

Les B. Hargrave '66
Les B. Hargrave '66 holds his newly found class ring that had been lost for 43 years.

“The ring arrived in perfect condition,” Hargrave said. “While the ring no longer fits, it brought back memories of my greatest academic moments. Like, Dr. T. Wayne Bailey’s political science classes. He is a highly educated, thoughtful and inspiring mentor. I’ve run into few like him, regretfully, and thought the world of him. And Stetson Law School’s Cal Kuenzel, who was a great legal scholar and the most impressive faculty member. “I still keep in touch with Tom LaSalle and the Rev. Dave Bena, both Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity brothers,” said Hargrave. “Tom was best man at my wedding in 1999, and Dave, a bishop in the Anglican Church, has been a lifelong friend, spiritual mentor and fellow ‘warrior’ from Vietnam days. I’ve been to several fraternity reunions, which Tom LaSalle unselfishly organizes annually. Some of my memorable brothers are ‘Big Brother’ Tom Brownfield ’65, Larry Smith ’65, Bruce Broer ’66, Bob Foulds ’70, Ray Miller ’66, JD ’69 and many others.

“Mr. Lucas is a kind person who reached out and touched my life. He went far beyond what I expected – I only hope I can emulate his example and do such a good turn for someone. To badly paraphrase a response to a little girl’s 1897 letter at Christmastime from the editor of The New York Sun, ‘Yes, Virginia, there are good people in this world – and they come to you when you least expect them.’ I also appreciate the follow-up that Cathy Foster, LTC McCulloch and Tom LaSalle did on tracking me down to the return of the ring.” Hargrave thanked Lucas by sending him a little token of his gratitude.

And so, a happy ending – one that Hargrave now shares with his four grandchildren.

Hargrave continues to work, and enjoys the odd golf game; that is, when he’s not buried in a textbook or sharing a glass of wine in the company of his wife, Annie, and their two schnauzers Bobo and Bama. Lucas now works in the Pittsburgh area, working on a new windmill job.

By Lisa Habermehl