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Updated: Tuesday, 27 Nov 2012, 10:49 AM CST
Published : Sunday, 25 Nov 2012, 4:51 PM CST
AUSTIN (KXAN) - The pain struck hard and deep in the gut of a young graduate of Texas A&M University at Galveston.
“Oh, my gosh,” said Toni Leigh Chandler, “I've never felt so low in my whole entire life than on my hands and knees in seven feet of snow searching for the most important thing that I've gotten in a long time. I've never felt a feeling like that.
“I was so sad and I did one of those movie moments where you just drop down to your knees and you yell, 'Nooooooo!'
“I was devastated for days.”
It was just before last year’s Christmas. Chandler was paying a long-anticipated visit to the Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.
“I just wanted to go there because I'm in love with the Grand Tetons,” she said. “They're so magical and mystical and when I was a child, my father took me there. I saw the beauty in all of it, you know, and I just wanted to make it a point to see it again.”
As she stood in the deep snow, Chandler felt like that child again.
“We're up there in the middle of nowhere and I couldn't help myself,” she recalled. “I just had to finally do a snow angel. And I threw myself back in the snow and I got snow stuck in between my gloves and my sleeves to my jacket. I took my gloves off and (shook my hands) to get the snow off.”
Ironically, just moments before, Chandler had briefly removed her cherished Texas A&M graduation ring and set in on a patch of sunlit snow so she could photograph it with her phone.
Now, as she shook the snow away from her hands, the ring slipped from her finger and went airborne.
“I instantly felt it fall off my finger, fly actually,” said Chandler. “I spent about two hours that day rooting through the snow. I couldn't find it and I was heartbroken.”
The young woman, in a panic, called an outfitter in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and asked about a metal detector. The owner had one available for rent, but he was about to close for the weekend.
Chandler begged him to wait for her and promised to pay him extra if he would. The owner agreed and the Aggie, breathing a deep sigh of relief and hope, quickly made the trip to town.
Back at the national park, with the blessing of a ranger, she used the normally prohibited metal detector to go after the ring, but the contraption proved useless.
So Chandler was deeply depressed as she made the long drive back to Texas.
Yes, surely you’re thinking now, "Come on, it was just a ring." But to her, as for many Aggie graduates, it was far more than that.
“It's the only trophy I ever earned for myself,” she said. “I earned it by getting a degree through A&M as a marine biology major. I worked really hard to get that ring and it meant a lot to me.”
But as the weeks dragged on, Chandler came to terms with the loss.
“I lost hope in it,” she said. “I did. But you know, I was OK with it. I was OK because I knew what the Tetons meant to me and I knew that it was all right to have a part of something, of me there, always lingering in the Tetons.”
Then, in the spring, Barb Walsh and her husband, John, left their home in Cape Cod, Mass., and pointed their recreational vehicle west. Arriving at Grand Teton Park, they laid claim to campsite # 61.
“My husband was backing our camper in,” Barb Walsh said, “and I was guiding him in and I spotted this shiny gold ring embedded in the camp site, in the gravel of the camp site.”
Walsh bent down and picked it up. She admired the 14K gold ring and the quarter-carat diamond in the center. Then she glanced inside the band. There, still easily readable, was a name.
“I put my name in there,” said Chandler. “I was going to put ‘Big Bird,’” she laughed, “because that's what they called me in college; that was my nickname.
“I really was and so if they were to call Texas A&M, and say, 'OK, well, do you have a Big Bird?'
“'Class of 2012?'
“'No, no Big Bird here.'”
But the engraving did not say, “Big Bird.” Instead it read, “Toni Leigh Chandler.”
Still on the road, Walsh made an effort to track Chandler down on the Internet, without success. Still, she held onto the ring.
“Years ago, I lost my high school class ring in the beach that we can now walk to from our house,” she recalled. “So I know, getting that back would have been great.”
Walsh never did see her ring again.
“The ocean is very hungry here,” she laughed. “We finished our trip, came home, and had some friends over to dinner last week, and my friend is a retired FBI agent, so I said, you know, 'If anybody can find this girl, it's probably you.’”
The former agent went to work and in no time, Chandler’s phone was ringing with word of the discovery.
Now some folks might have been creeped out by being stalked by the FBI. Not Chandler, though. She, too, had used some intense investigative techniques to reunite with an older sister she had never seen.
“It was peoplefinder.com,” she said, “and I paid about $70 to find her and I found her. I got all her numbers, even her blood type.
“It was one of those reunite stories. She's older than I am. She's 34 and I'm 23. She never knew I existed. My father left them in California and I found out she was living in Marble Falls, so we met about six years ago.
“We're so alike: tall, goofy, same mannerisms, I mean, we just completed each other's lives.”
So after the call, a flurry of emails and an overnight delivery later, the Aggie unwrapped the package from New England with a thrill in every move.
Finally, there it was, that symbol of her years of hard work, that proud and pretty ring, the like of which stirs the soul of every A&M alum.
Chandler slipped it back to the spot on her left hand where it belongs and grinned.
The ring will have to be resized. Chandler had lost some 60 pounds since she first bought it, causing it to slip around on her finger and, along with the wet snow, contributing to the accidental loss. But that is a trifling matter.
“I'm so grateful to have it back,” she said, “and it warmed my heart to know that there are honest people out there. I gained my faith back in humanity.”
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