Class of 1953 Class Ring Returned to Granddaughter
What would you do if you found a college class ring more than 60 years old, buried under a tree in a county park?
You might try to imagine who the owner was, and how it got there. You might wonder if the owner was still around, and place a lost-and-found ad to see if anyone would claim it. Or you might sell it for the value of the gold — you could pocket $100 or so.
Or, if you are amateur treasure hunter Kevin Catalfamo, you launch a passionate quest to find out who lost that Class of 1953 East Stroudsburg Teachers College ring and return it.
It was a cold day in February 2017, and Catalfamo was out hiking in a 2,500-acre park south of Rochester in upstate New York. He decided to do some metal detecting, looking for historical artifacts. He got a strong signal at the base of a fruit tree. Digging down eight inches, he found the ring with a red stone and “M.M.B.” engraved inside.
“I saw the color, the writing, the initials, and it just hit home,” he says. “Man, it would be great to get this back to the owner.”
He had no idea where East Stroudsburg was, but soon found it was located in Pennsylvania, 250 miles away, and that the teachers college had become East Stroudsburg University. An online treasure-hunting site he frequents turned up someone with access to a digital yearbook archive, who found the 1953 “Stroud” yearbook and looked for seniors with initials matching the ring.
There were a couple of possibilities, but the yearbook didn’t include middle initials, so it was impossible to pin down. He called Josten’s, the ring company, but they only keep records for 10 years.
Next was a call to the ESU Alumni Office, where he reached Jessica Schultz, coordinator of alumni engagement.
“One of our functions is to connect alumni with the University and with each other,” says Alumni Director Leon John. “We typically have alumni contacting us to track down a classmate or ask for information about a family member who may have graduated from ESU.”
But Catalfamo’s request was something different. “Jessica could not match the initials with anyone in our database,” John said, noting that not all alumni records from 50 years ago or more have been digitized. But Schultz followed up with the registrar’s office, and from the process of elimination, was able to identify the probable owner of the ring as Mildred Burton, Class of 1953, of Philadelphia.
But ESU’s involvement in the case was about to end. “Because of privacy issues, we cannot divulge information about our alumni to others,” John said. “In this case, we did not have anything other than Mildred’s last known address. We were unable to share this with Kevin, but we sent a letter to that address, asking if she ever lost an item with her initials.”
But that letter went unanswered, and so the mystery continued.
Who was Mildred Burton? The yearbook offers only small clues. She majored in secondary education, so could have been a teacher. She was in the math club, the French club and the nature club. She was a member of Kappa Delta Pi, the international honor society in education. That was all the book revealed.
But Catalfamo was not giving up. He sought help from WHEC-TV in Rochester, which started investigating story once the ring had a name attached to it.
Thinking the woman must have come to Rochester to teach, reporter Berkeley Brean contacted all the school districts in the area, asking them to search their records for a teacher named Mildred Burton. And while those inquiries went nowhere, news of the search reached Lisa Nielsen, a school district clerk who is also a genealogist.
Nielsen’s work helping adoptees find their birth parents taught her how to use both historical and modern records. And she was able to find Mildred Burton.
“I found her and her descendants while on a lunch break,” she says, using a number of online resources.
“Kevin figured out that the ring belong to Mildred Burton, but he didn’t know where to look next for more information on her and her family. That is when the genealogical work came into play to find her married name and her descendants.”
Mildred married a Navy man from Rochester a year after she graduated. She had a daughter, but then died just three years later, when she was only 30. Nielsen continued to search, looking for Mildred’s daughter, Patricia. She had married and also died young, but was survived by daughters Lisa and Lindsay Schwebke, who Nielsen was able to locate living in Manhattan.
Thus Brean and Catalfamo were able to make a trip to the city at the end of May, meeting up with Mildred Burton’s granddaughters and giving them her long-lost class ring.
“They had clearly been doing a lot of work to find us, so I think we were both surprised and grateful more than anything,” says Lisa Schwebke, 31.
When their mother died, the girls inherited their grandmother’s Kappa Delta Pi pin, a custom name pin, and a handful of photographs of the woman they know as “Millie.”
“I was surprised to find that in the very few pictures that we have of Millie, she appears to be wearing the ring in two of them,” Schwebke says. “I have it in a jewelry box along with Millie’s two pins and a few things from my mother, and it feels really special.”
“I’ve always wanted to know more about her, but there is so little information about her. I still hope to someday learn more, but it’s incredible to feel a new connection to her through this ring.”