When Richard Dodds received a phone call claiming his late father's long-lost class ring had been found more than 70 years later in faraway Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific, it crossed his mind the call might be a scam.
But Thursday evening, the 1938 class ring, concluding a charmed journey, was ceremonially returned to the Dodds family at Audubon High School in South Jersey. Edward Dodds, who died in 1996, graduated from the school that year. Dodds served during World War II and lost the ring when stationed in Milne Bay province of what was then New Guinea with the Third Engineer Special Brigade.
Nearly 50 people gathered in the high school's small auditorium for the ceremony. The event, which lasted a little less than an hour, drew an audience filled with many generations, including four of the Dodds family.
The ring was found in a subsistence farmer's field, Audubon Alumni Association vice president Mike Bruzzesse explained. Liam Ngahan, the farmer who unearthed the ring in 2013, wore it for several years before showing it to John Hocknull, a friend.
Hocknull, who is Scottish, works in Papua New Guinea and nearby Australia, and came to know Ngahan through his work there. The two figured the ring likely belonged to an American soldier, knowing Americans had served in the area during the war, Hocknull said by phone.
The ring was inscribed with several identifying features: the words Audubon High School, the number 38, and the initials EDD. Hocknull searched the internet to locate the school and late last year emailed Buchs several pictures of the ring, wondering if the owner was still in town. Buchs looked through the school's 1938 yearbook and found the name of Dodds, who was a Runnemede resident. Buchs turned the case over to the alumni association to find the Dodds family.
Bruzzesse said he called six local families with the last name Dodds before he received a call back from Richard Dodds, who explained that although his father had died, he did graduate from the high school in 1938. Richard Dodds, 52, a Postal Service worker like his father, lives in Runnemede.
"There's not really one emotion that describes this," Dodds said ahead of the ceremony. "I think it's great for the grandkids and some great-grandkids to be connected to the past and the generation before this."
Dodds knew his father had lost his ring during his time in New Guinea, but said his father always joked it didn't matter because the initials on it, EDD, were wrong. His father's name was Edward J. Dodds.
After several decades buried in the ground, the ring was returned to the Dodds family Thursday night by Suzanne Basich, Hocknull's niece, who coincidentally lives in Woodbury. That's where Hocknull sent the ring when the Dodds family was contacted, although Hocknull expressed frustration the package first ended up in Colorado because of a zip code mix-up.
Edward Dodds' five children were present at the ceremony, as well as his 92-year-old sister-in-law, Matilda Canning. They all live in South Jersey.
"I was delighted to be a part of this," Hocknull said. "It brought the Dodds family back together in a practical way, and I think brought a lot of pleasure to people." Basich said she was delighted to be his stand-in and take part in the "miraculous series of events."
Although Richard Dodds said he did not believe his father would have liked the hubbub the ceremony entailed, he added he was certain his father would have valued the memories the ring brings with it. Dodds said his father did not speak about the war often. If he did, he would tell stories about the men in his brigade playing softball or other downtime activities – never specifics of battle.
Canning expressed excitement at the ceremony and said it brought back many memories of her own childhood. She brought pictures of Edward Dodds' brigade and said she once attended a reunion without her brother-in-law.
"But really, I just love this Liam," she said of the man who found the ring. "I've never met him, but what he did was wonderful. It's all a miracle."
While the nearly 9,000-mile journey of the ring inspired the ceremony, the organizers also used the opportunity to honor veterans, especially those who served during World War II, noting that the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor was in December.
"We owe our gratitude to the men who served in the war. They were critical to our freedom and way of life," Bruzzesse said. "We salute you."
A VFW honor guard was present, along with the mayors of Audubon and Runnemede, school officials, and members of the alumni association.
"It's kind of surreal to come from a phone call in September," Richard Dodds said. "Now all these steps had to line up to get the ring to come from the South Pacific to South Jersey, all for my father."