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Returned ring sparks preservation of family history

Allen Walters uses a metal detector in the area where he found a 1931 Ashland High School class ring. Ashland Tidings file photo
Allen Walters and Matthew Shorack fist bump to celebrate the return of a family heirloom.

ASHLAND — Matthew Shorack’s daughters never met their great-grandmother, but with her 1931 high school ring returned to the family, the girls have come to know her through retellings of her years as a teacher, singer, artist, grandmother and truly terrible cook.

What began as a genealogical treasure hunt to return a lost piece of jewelry became the catalyst for uncovering a love story shared by Shorack’s grandparents, and then, a mission to understand the chronicle of a whole family by peering into the past.

In the spring of 2019, Allen Walters received a metal detector as a retirement gift from his wife and located his first treasure within 30 minutes of his inaugural expedition in a field behind Burger King — later discovered to be the former site of a horse arena and the Valley View Speedway, according to Ashland historian George Kramer.

Sifting packed soil through his fingers, Walters revealed a small ring, suited for a woman’s hand, dated 1931 from Ashland High School and marked with the initials MRN. As a result of thorough genealogical research guided by the late Ashland Tidings journalist John Darling, the ring was identified as the property of Ruth Newbry. Darling died Jan. 6 after a battle with cancer.

Since his first discovery, Walters has uncovered coins, wedding rings and more, some with historical significance and others without, but the search intrigues him all the same.

Over the past two years, Walters’ metal detection skills, dedication to learning people’s stories and returning what they have lost earned him nicknames like “the ring guy” and “lord of the rings” among Rogue Valley-based metal detection and rockhounding enthusiasts.

While journalists and genealogists furthered his initial research, Walters kept the ring prominently displayed on his bulletin board at home, determined to return the piece of history to surviving family members.

The COVID-19 pandemic delayed Walters’ plans to return the ring once a family member was tracked down, building up anticipation month by month. Shorack said he is immeasurably grateful to have had it resting in his home in Renton, Washington, since April — a centerpiece for sharing the family story with friends and relatives.

Once Walters brought Shorack news of the ring’s existence, accompanied by his own bit of historical discovery about Ruth Newbry, Shorack reached out to extended family to fill in some blanks about his grandmother’s life.

“When you’re growing up with your grandmother, you just think of her as grandma, that’s about as far as it goes,” he said. “You never think of her when she was a young woman and some of the things she went through and experienced.”

Born in 1912, Ruth Newbry moved to Ashland in 1924. She obtained a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon and taught elementary school in Ashland and Grants Pass. She relocated to Eugene in 1944 and continued teaching for 32 years.

Her funeral in 1995 was the first service Shorack ever performed as a pastor, at his grandmother’s request.

“You have to be so strong emotionally and mentally when you’re doing that, that I actually didn’t have a chance to grieve at the time,” Shorack said.

About a year after the funeral, he picked up the phone to deliver his grandma exciting news, as he often did during her life. The pair were close. As the line rang, realizing no one would answer, a wave of grief washed in, finally allowing him to mourn her passing and reflect on her role in his life.

Re-meeting his grandmother through the lens of history has inspired Shorack to invest more into preserving a greater family story, from his Yugoslavian ancestry to tales of his childrens’ adoption from Uganda.

Through lessons learned in his own life and marriage, Shorack has come to better understand the love his grandparents shared, the challenges they lived through and a fierce dedication to their children — deepening his connection to them with every story passed on.

Shorack and his wife, Julie, served as missionaries in Uganda, where they adopted three of their four children. When they became foster parents to seven orphaned infants, the children had never seen “muzungu” (white people) before and cried in fear, except Isaac, their first adopted son, whose smile graced an unsupported head and whose legs bowed inward at 1 year old.

Over six years in Uganda, Shorack survived malaria 28 times. Only one of the three children was considered healthy at the time of their adoption. On a long journey back to the U.S., with Isaac, Thomas and Alexia in tow, Julie unexpectedly became pregnant with their youngest child, Tessa.

One day, doing away with Shorack’s concerns about bringing a natural-born white child into the family, Thomas, age 4, came to his father and said, “Daddy, this is going to be our only white baby. We’re going to need to give her a lot of extra love so she doesn’t feel left out.”

“We have always told the kids their story, even before they could fully understand what it meant,” Shorack said.

It turns out, the family has a history of loving and raising adopted children.

As an adult, Shorack learned that his mother was the child of his grandmother’s first marriage. When Ruth married Cyril Crabtree in 1946, Cyril — the man who was “grandpa” to Shorack and his siblings — adopted Ruth’s daughter as his own.

The investigation into Ruth’s life continues. Despite the pieces Shorack has fit together thus far, no one in the family knows much about her first marriage or why they separated, he said.

“I didn’t realize how much this would spur me on, personally, to find out as much as I could not just about grandma but more and more about our family,” Shorack said. “It has spurred on this whole learning of and appreciation for the past.”

Cyril’s formal education only reached eighth grade, yet he was a skilled jack of all trades, said Shorack, who spent a month every summer on his grandparent’s farm in Eugene as a child.

Shorack remembers his grandmother as a “hopeless romantic,” who always had a romance novel on her side table. Over their childhood summers, Shorack and his siblings played card games and board games with grandma, then fished and hunted with grandpa.

Grandma loved to cook for the family. No one had the heart to tell her that cooking was not her best skill, Shorack said. The meat was always overcooked. Grandpa would smile and give a nod to the young ones, confirming that silence was the most gracious choice.

The couple thrived in a traditional marital arrangement of the time — Ruth managed the home and Cyril took care of anything outdoors. Humor always livened the household.

“She had a sparkle about her,” Shorack said of his grandmother. “I could tell, every time [grandpa] talked about her, he would talk about her like she was still the young woman that he first met.”

Now married nearly 30 years to his high school sweetheart, Shorack said he understands the sentiment. He can recall in vivid detail how his wife looked when he first saw her in 1984, standing in line at a youth leadership camp with natural light shining down on her like a spotlight.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.