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After thirty years, ringing in memories

A couple living along the Withlacoochee River help track down the owner of a class ring lost more than 30 years ago.

By MOISES MENDOZA
Published August 12, 2006


INVERNESS - There are lots of fish in the little spot of the Withlacoochee River that runs just behind Helen and Don Sells' Junglecamp Road home.

That's why the Sellses' neighbors, Margie Lowe and Art Denny, were there with their fishing rods around July 1 - they don't remember the exact date. And when Lowe saw a glint in the dirt along the river around 10 a.m., she just kept fishing.

But curiosity got the better of her. Lowe went to the edge of the bank and brushed away the dirt.

She found a shiny class ring from Citrus High School. It had the initials "V.L.P." and a date, 1975.

The Sellses had children and grandchildren, Lowe remembered. She thought the ring might be one of theirs. She showed it to Denny, then gave it to Donald Sells who had come outside.

Then she went on fishing.

* * *

Donald Sells went inside the house and gave the ring to his wife, Helen.

It was true, Mrs. Sells thought, her son Michael did graduate right around that time. But he had graduated in 1973, so the ring wasn't his. She didn't know who it belonged to.

But class rings mean a lot to high schoolers and adults alike. She had to find its owner.

If the ring's owner graduated in 1975, she was probably a freshman around 1972.

Mrs. Sells found Michael's 1972 yearbook. She looked for a person with the initial's V.L.P.

She found Valerie L. Parker, a freshman with long dark hair and a striped shirt.

Sells picked up a phone book and started calling people in the yearbook and in the community who might have known a Valerie Parker.

The grapevine started buzzing.

* * *

Valerie Parker Duke was in her Frostproof, Fla., home cooking dinner on about July 12 when she got a phone call. It was a friend from high school.

"Guess what?" the voice on the line said. "A lady found your class ring."

Since 1975, a lot had changed in Parker Duke's life. She had been married and divorced. Her name had changed from Parker to Parker Duke. She also had a 17-year-old son. He had recently received his class ring.

Parker Duke started to cry. That ring had meant so much to her.

* * *

It was June 1974, and Milton McClain was having his 18th birthday party at Don's Jungle Camp, a fish camp owned by Helen and Don Sells that sold food, drinks and beer on Junglecamp Road.

Valerie had been invited because Milton was her best friend's boyfriend. There was dancing, music and barbecuing.

And there was the pristine water of the Withlacoochee River.

Milton was a jokester. He picked up Valerie and threw her in the river.

And her class ring, which she had gotten just recently, slipped off her finger and into the water.

They searched for it but couldn't find it.

A couple of weeks later, Valerie's mom was killed in a car crash.

Eventually the Sellses got rid of Don's Jungle Camp. They decided to live the retired life along the river.

* * *

Parker Duke's work schedule made it impossible to get the ring for a few weeks.

She called Sells and made arrangements to pick it up on July 29.

On that day, she arrived on Junglecamp Road with a childhood friend. She had brought candy and a plant to give to the Sellses.

"You're finally here," Helen Sells said.

Margie Lowe, the woman who found the ring, was there, too.

For the last few weeks, Mrs. Sells had kept the ring in her purse.

She took it out and gave it to Parker Duke.

The ring fit Parker Duke's finger perfectly. It had hardly tarnished at all.

The memories started to flow: the high school friendships, the death of her mother.

Parker Duke wept again.

* * *

Helen Sells thinks a big bird somehow picked the ring out of the river and put it on the bank for Lowe to find. Sometimes the blue herons do that with shells or fish.

Finding the ring, however, was a miracle, she says.

Parker Duke wears her ring every day now. It's like a missing part of her life has been found and given back to her.

She wishes someone could bring her mother back, too.