It was 1984, and Jay Hiltgen – a scholarship javelin thrower for Wichita State University – was at practice at Cessna Stadium.
Something caught his eye on the ground, glimmering right by his javelin. He picked it up and saw that it was a high school class ring, decorated with a ruby red stone and a growling lion. Someone with the initials JAH who had graduated from Lawrence High School in 1977 had apparently lost it.
Hiltgen took it home, intending to send it off to Jostens, the company that made the ring, to see if it could be reunited with its owner.
But the reunion took 33 years.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
After all this time, Hiltgen has finally found the owner of the ring, who said he lost it so long ago, he almost had forgotten he ever had it. But soon, “JAH” will have it back.
Chalk it up to one of the miracles of social media.
“Back then we didn’t have computers or iPhones, and we definitely didn’t have any Facebook,” said Hiltgen, who now lives in Shawnee County, about 15 miles northeast of Topeka.
After Hiltgen found the ring, he took it with him back to his parents’ house, fully intending to find its owner. Years later, he still hadn’t done it, and when he moved out and got married, everything he owned was thrown into boxes – including the ring.
The box stayed packed until two weeks ago. Hiltgen, a hunter, was working on a gun and remembered that he had some gun pieces in an old box. He went digging.
“I opened a box up and, and there in the bottom was that ring,” he said.
Hiltgen felt bad he’d never followed through, so his wife volunteered to call Jostens. But the company’s records go back only about 17 years, they told her.
“I was sitting there and told her, ‘Let’s just put it on Facebook and see what happens,’” Hiltgen said.
So on Tuesday at about 6 p.m., Hiltgen took pictures of the ring on his own finger and posted them to his account. “Please share this and maybe the owner can be reunited with it,” he wrote.
By the time he went to bed, Hiltgen said, he had solved his 33-year-old mystery.
The post was shared enough times that night that it reached people from the Lawrence High class of 1977, who looked in their yearbooks for people whose initials were JH.
One of the people who saw the post decided that the ring must belong to his boss: John Arthur Hardman, who owns Jayhawk Bowling Supply in Lawrence – and who is also a member of the Lawrence High School class of 1977.
“I walked in the front door to come to work, and one of my guys was sitting at his desk and said, ‘John, someone’s found your class ring! I’m almost positive it’s going to be your high school class ring!’” Hardman said.
Hardman really hadn’t thought about his class ring much at all during his adult life. He knew he once had one. And he knew that he’d somehow lost it. But he had no idea when or where.
He’d attended Wichita State bowling scholarship from 1977 until 1981, and at one point, he’d lived in Fairmount Towers, near Cessna Stadium. He used to sneak in to the stadium at night to run the track, he said.
“The only thing I can think of is I lost it jogging and maybe it got kicked on to the grass and it ended up getting embedded on the ground,” Hardman said.
Both Hardman and Hiltgen remember that the Cessna Stadium football field had been tilled up around the time the ring resurfaced. Both theorize that the tiller churned it up.
The two former WSU athletes have made plans to meet and exchange the ring, and Hardman said the timing is particularly interesting.
Just last weekend, Hardman said, he attended his 40th high school reunion, so he had been spending a lot of time reminiscing about 1977.
“That really makes you think about your classmates and memories of school, so to have this happen right now is strange,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to getting it back.”