Call comes with ring attached

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Mary Cardin’s late husband lost his high school class ring on the shore of a Michigan lake in 1973. Forty years later, the finder tracked down Mary Cardin and returned the keepsake.

The ring came like an unexpected, but not unwelcome, visitor from the past.

It came out of the blue, preceded by a recent phone call from Fordyce, Ark. Hearing that city’s name, and the familiar accent, momentarily shook up Mary Cardin. The town of 4,200 about an hour south of Little Rock is the boyhood home of her late husband.

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Mary was maid of honor when she met Christopher Cardin at a wedding in her hometown of Mifflinburg, Pa., in April 1977. Chris had spent time in the Air Force, including a stint at K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base near Marquette, Mich. He had moved to Pennsylvania to work for a friend he’d met in the service.

Chris was part Cherokee, and Mary fell for the dark and handsome man.

“We started dating soon after that, and that was it,” she says in her Durango home decorated with C.L. Cardin’s Southwest-themed paintings. A few feet away on an easel is his last work, a middle-aged Native American holding a peace pipe, which she dubbed “Peace, My Final Gift.”

In 1978, they moved to Atlanta, where they got married in 1979 and spent the next 27 years.

When his painting career reached a lull, or when he was not inspired, Chris was also an accomplished craftsman of furniture and cabinets. “He could do anything with his hands,” Mary says.

For fun, they rode his custom-built Harley-Davidson around. At some point in their relationship, Mary remembers Chris telling her about a lost high school ring.

In 2004, for their 25th wedding anniversary, they traveled through the Southwest. Mary enjoyed many places, but was enamored with Durango.

They split in 2007. Chris’ depression, and his periodic trysts, finally pushed Mary to ask for a separation.

Chris moved West to Taos, N.M., in May of that year. Two months later, Mary settled in Durango.

Mary thought Chris was doing well in Taos. He’d found a gallery to display his work, and was still creating paintings of Native Americans and horses. She says she talked to him by phone in late August, and he seemed happy with his progress. But maybe he wasn’t.

“Just like every other artist, he didn’t think it was very good,” Mary says. “They are just so self-critical.”

Two days after Labor Day, a New Mexico state patrolman called her: Chris was missing, and his truck was found parked on the east side of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge about 10 miles from Taos.

There are several suicides each year at the bridge. Some groups have lobbied for installing nets underneath the bridge to prevent such acts, but so far, nothing has been done. Many believe netting would spoil aesthetics of the tourist-drawing bridge.

The New Mexico State Patrol did a search, but with no evidence other than the truck, took the case no further.

Mary decided she needed to know. She traveled to Taos and arranged through a couple of friends Chris had met to hire a rafting company to take her through the popular stretch of river. About 1 miles south of the bridge, the raft guide spotted a body in rapids, caught among rocks. Mary identified the body as Chris. The body was secured, and authorities recovered it the next day.

That was nearly six years ago. Mary worked through the pain by writing and self-publishing a book, Peace, My Final Gift. The book’s title comes from the painting, which she retrieved from a Taos gallery. Originally, she named it “Circle of Life,” but ultimately found a different meaning in it.

“It’s more he wants us to be at peace with his decision and with our lives and with who we are,” she says.

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In late spring 1973, Dianne DeMoss’ husband, Elmer, and brother went fishing at a lake near Marquette, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Writes Dianne in an email, “When they put the boat in the water my husband saw something shining brightly at the water’s edge.”

It was a high school ring, owned by someone with the initials CLC, Class of 1971. Dianne tried to find the owner, but the Internet age hadn’t yet arrived, and she couldn’t figure out where Fordyce was. She put it away and didn’t think of it for 40 years. This spring, a granddaughter found it when they were searching through her possessions.

“The Internet made it much easier to find the high school,” writes DeMoss, who now lives in Kentucky.

She contacted Fordyce High School, which, using the initials engraved on the ring, traced it to Christopher L. Cardin.

On April 23, Fordyce High attendance office worker Dena Trammell made a call to Southwest Colorado.

Later that day, Mary Cardin retrieved the phone message. “Please give me a call,” the voice from Fordyce High said. Mary knew Chris was from there.

“I waited a couple hours before I called her because I was kind of shaken up inside,” Mary says. Trammell told her about the ring, and asked if she’d like to get in touch with DeMoss.

DeMoss, Mary says, was almost as excited as she was at the thought of being able to return the ring.

Mary Cardin is not certain what she’ll do with this memento of her late husband’s life. But what she most wants is to keep his memory alive.

“It’s too sacred right now to do anything with,” says Mary, who, two years ago, started Shining Star Caregivers to tend to senior residents in their homes. Chris called her his shining star.

“I don’t know if it’s coming from Chris or how the universe works. ... There might be some higher purpose for this. To make people more aware of his art or something.

“I would like that, because I never did want his art to die with him. I think he was too good.”

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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