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Nearly 40 years later, Debbie Harris will get her ring back

Is this your Frederick Douglass High School class of 1976 ring?
Is this your Frederick Douglass High School class of 1976 ring? (Baltimore Sun)

If it's OK with you, I'd like to start today's column with a happy ending and some thanks. The thanks go to Mike McGee of Courtside Investigations in Towson for finding the woman whose Douglass High School class ring appeared in a photograph with this column on Tuesday.

After reading about the long-lost ring — how it mysteriously had shown up among the personal effects of a deceased Baltimore house painter named Charles Stran — McGee took it upon himself to help Stran's son, Chuck, locate the ring's owner.

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The name on the Douglass ring (Class of 1976) was Deborah Walls.

Chuck Stran, who found the ring while going through his father's belongings, had never heard of Deborah Walls. He had no idea how his dad, who died four years ago at age 83, had come to possess her ring.

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Unsuccessful in locating Walls, Chuck Stran contacted me, and thus Tuesday's column.

McGee, a seasoned investigator, couldn't resist the challenge. He quickly located a woman named Deborah Walls, who used to live in Baltimore, in San Antonio. Her name is now Deborah Harris. McGee gave me her phone number.

I spoke to her Friday, and she confirmed her maiden name, her status as a Douglass alumnus and her long separation from the ring.

"I saved my money and bought it myself," Harris says. "It was my senior year, and I saved money from baby-sitting and from selling snowballs. I grew up on Westwood Avenue in West Baltimore, and I used to sell snowballs in the front of a store on McKean Avenue in the summertime. We called the store Miss Mason's. It's gone now."

Harris did not want to impose on her parents for the ring. She was proud to have earned the money for it — and absolutely frantic, then heartbroken when, after only a short time, she lost it.

"I cried and cried," she said. "I didn't have [the ring] very long before I lost it. I used to take my ring off to wash my hands and to put cream on … and that's my best guess about how I lost it."

Her parents, Shirley and Joseph Walls, felt sorry for their daughter; they paid for a replacement. Harris, who moved away from Baltimore many years ago — "I married a military man," she said — never thought she'd see the original ring again.

So nearly 40 years later, after having lived in Germany and Panama, in Illinois and, for the past two decades, Texas, she gets a phone call from a stranger in her hometown about a ring she lost as a teenager.

She was excited by the news, but Chuck Stran might have been even more excited.

"I'm amazed," he said, and announced plans to ship the ring via UPS to Harris right away.

Of course, we still don't know how his dad came to possess the ring. Says his son: "That's a mystery for the universe."

A tale made for the movies

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Someone needs to write a screenplay based on Paul Hilken, the Baltimore businessman who had a secret life as a saboteur almost 100 years ago, in the year before the U.S. entered World War I. I'm seeing Matt Damon, maybe Jeremy Renner, in the lead.

Hilken is the central figure in "The Baltimore Sabotage Cell," a new book by military historian Dwight Messimer, published by the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis.

Hilken was prominent and prosperous, with a home in Roland Park. He served as Baltimore agent for the North German Lloyd steamship line.

In 1916, while war raged in Europe, Hilken and German agents in Baltimore developed a cell of saboteurs who carried out dozens of attacks on the East Coast to disrupt the supply of munitions and materials to the British and French. They planted incendiary bombs in factories and aboard supply ships; a Johns Hopkins physician gave them the bacteria they needed to infect horses and mules, scheduled for shipment overseas, with anthrax and glanders. The conspirators' boldest act was a massive munitions explosion at a place on the New Jersey waterfront known as Black Tom Island.

There's a lot to the story, and Messimer's book is rich in detail. But it needs to be a movie. As a movie, it can't miss — war, espionage, sabotage, creepy personalities, conflicted loyalties, and lots of blowing up stuff.

Remembering Bill Toohey

He would have preferred to continue his career as a radio newsman, but when Bill Toohey turned up in the mid-1990s as the spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department, those of us who remained on the reporting side of news were pleased. Bill's appointment meant one of our own, who understood how the press functioned, would be disseminating information about crime and police activities on a daily basis, and at crunch time, on deadline. Bill was fair, prompt, professional, able to artfully balance his duties as a police spokesman with his responsibility to the public's right to know. He did so with a sense of humor much needed and now much missed. Rest in peace.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is also the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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