Like most great tales of a time when women wore ruby red lipstick and men courted them while in uniform, this one involves a war and love, a railroad train and loss.
And something lost found again.
And a bathroom.
A ladies washroom, to be precise, in a Virginia train station, sometime around 1941.
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“But it could have been 1942, yet I believe it was ’41,” says Frances McDowell Leitner, who is 95 but is so active and sharp that her age is clearly a state of mind. “We had gone to Roanoke (Va.) to see my brother’s baby. He was off in Hawaii in the service, but the baby was born there.”
On their way home to Charleston, Frances and her parents had to change trains in Petersburg to get home after the Roanoke visit. While there, Frances used the ladies room.
She took off her class ring – Hollins College, a private women’s school in Roanoke, class of 1939 – to wash her hands.
Inside the ring, which cost $25 – real money, in those days – was the script for the 1939 class, and her initials.
“I must have left it right there alongside the basin, the sink,” Leitner said. “It wasn’t until we were back on our way that I realized I didn’t have it on. I figured someone would see the college name and return it to the school, and I would have it back soon after.”
No such luck.
Frances soon moved to Chester after marrying the late James “J.D.” Leitner, a builder. The family lived there for more than 60 years, raising kids. Family members heard the story of the missing ring, and so did others.
Hollins College would go on to allow men to enroll, and evolve from college to university. Every five years at reunions, Frances was the one regal Southern lady attending without her class ring.
She now lives as a widow at Rock Hill’s Westminster Towers, a retirement community where she is so active that if she were a teenager, her momma and daddy would be asking where she is at all hours of the day and night.
Then the Internet came barging into Frances’ life.
You can find all kinds of stuff on eBay, the online auction website. There is even an entire section dedicated to Hollins College memorabilia.
Kathleen McDonald Roglan, a Hollins alumna from Texas, has a hobby of buying stuff relating to her alma mater. She found a Hollins ring listed on eBay belonging to someone in Chambersburg, Pa.
Roglan knew that this ring had to mean something special to someone. She bid on the ring and won the auction for $89.
“This ring just had to be returned,” Roglan said.
Then Roglan contacted an old classmate from her own Hollins class of 1997 who works in alumni affairs at the school. Running down a list of graduates, the only “McD” initials – like those inscribed on the ring – belonged to Frances McDowell, class of 1939.
They learned that Frances McDowell Leitner was still very much alive at 95.
Roglan was breathless with excitement for someone she had never met – and still hasn’t.
“I knew in my heart that it had to be hers,” Roglan said.
It sure was.
“There was just 49 girls in the class that year, 1939,” Frances said. “I was the only McD. It had to be my ring.”
Frances’ daughter, Frances Leitner Rouse, exchanged emails with Roglan to work out the details of getting the ring back – calling it a “ring rescue.”
“Rescued after more than 70 years,” she said.
Frances McDowell Leitner and her daughter, refusing to take the ring for free, not only sent Roglan the $89 for the ring, they threw in $11 for shipping.
The ring arrived in Rock Hill on Sunday. A full 71 – or 72 – years after it had been left on a basin in a train station in Petersburg, Va.
“It was like a reunion with a child, I was so happy,” Frances said. “The ring isn’t worn on the inside. Probably someone found it and it ended up in a jewelry box somewhere, never worn.
“Maybe when somebody died, it was found and put up for sale on eBay.”
Frances was asked if she knew anything about eBay before hearing that her ring had been found.
“Not a thing,” she said. “I think I like it now, though.”
She now wears the ring on her pinkie. She soon will take it to be sized because it won’t fit over the knuckle of her ring finger.
Frances’ smile says more than any words about her ring. She holds it and twists it and puts it up near her eyes to take a good look.
“And I don’t think I will take it off in the washroom, either,” she said.