When Karen Autenrieth lost her wedding ring in 1973 after a visit to her grandparents’ house in Chicago, she never expected to see the gold band again.
Autenrieth was loading her three children into the car when the ring slipped off her finger. “It was very snowy, very cold, and I was helping them get into the car, … and it flew off my hand and landed in the snow,” she said.
Digging around in the snow failed to turn up the ring. “I came back a few weeks later when the snow had melted, looked again, no luck,” she said. “Tried a couple other times too, no luck.”
Now, 48 years later, the ring is being returned to the San Antonio resident and her husband of almost 55 years – just in time for Valentine’s Day, thanks to a social media post and the sleuthing of employees from a Chicago historical society.
“It’s supposed to arrive [in the mail] any day now,” Autenrieth said. “We’re planning to open [the package] on Valentine’s Day together.”
Love and marriage
The ring saga had its start in the summer of 1962 at a church dance in Chicago. At the time, Karen Berk was 17 and a senior in high school. Robert Autenrieth was a year older, a freshman in college.
“I was dancing with some guy and Bob was with a friend, and [Bob’s friend] knew the guy who I was dancing with. So their plan was, ‘OK, let’s go over – I talk to the friend to keep him busy, and Bob, you can ask her to dance,’” Karen Autenrieth said with a laugh. “So that’s how we met.”
They dated for two years, got engaged, and married the following year, on April 16, 1966. The couple got matching wedding bands with their initials and wedding date engraved inside the rings.
A wedding photo shows the couple wearing their rings, Bob Autenrieth’s hand under his bride’s. The night before the wedding, he had burned his hand while trying to polish his shoes. “Back then you would take the can of shoe polish and light it to liquefy it, then put it on your shoes,” he said. “But it spilled on my hand, and burned it pretty bad. That’s why my hand is underneath hers.”
The couple moved to San Antonio in 1982 and have been living on the city’s Northeast Side ever since. They will celebrate their 55th anniversary this April, having long since fashioned a replacement for Karen Autenrieth’s lost wedding ring.
The ring quest
Sarah Batka resides in the Chicago house formerly occupied by Autenrieth’s grandparents. Six or seven years ago, she found a wedding ring while gardening. Inside the ring were the initials “R.A. to K.B.” and a date, “4-16-66,” but Batka had never been able to identify its owner.
She thought she might have found the owner two weeks ago after seeing a post on a community Facebook page from a man seeking a lost wedding ring. It wasn’t his ring, but another member of the Facebook group, Clare Duggan, saw Batka’s post about the ring and tagged a local historical society and two of its historians, Linda Lamberty and Carol Flynn.
The Ridge Historical Society is dedicated to preserving and interpreting “the distinct history of the Morgan Park, Beverly Hills, Washington Heights, and Mount Greenwood communities of Chicago.”
Intrigued, Flynn and Lamberty got to work. After just a day of researching government and building records, newspaper archives, and genealogy websites, the two found a strong lead to follow. The granddaughter of the couple who had lived in the house at one time was named Karen Berk Autenrieth.
“When you research families, you tend to get a feel for them as you go along,” Lamberty said. “Once I located this family in connection with the house where the ring was lost and later found, I was touched by their seemingly close bond and sense of tradition.”
Using social media, Flynn was able to track down Karen and Bob Autenrieth, contacting Karen via Facebook Messenger to ask if she’d ever lost a gold wedding band. On Feb. 1, the two got in touch on a phone call that Flynn described as “teary” for the best of reasons.
Batka gave the ring to Flynn and Lamberty, entrusting its return to them. Flynn said she’s never felt so responsible for something before.
“I felt like I should get in my car and drive it down there personally, you know. I mean, I suddenly had new appreciation for Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings,” Flynn said. “I did get it to the post office and I … made sure the post office took this seriously.”
Only after getting a tracking number the following day did Flynn say she and Lamberty felt the ring was safely on its way.
“It was all serendipity,” she said.
Awaiting the return of the long-lost ring, the Autenrieths have planned a special Valentine’s Day gathering with daughter Michele Brown; her husband, Will; and their two kids, Noah and Macey; son Robert Autenrieth Jr. and his two surviving children, Alissa and Matthew; son Brian Autenrieth; his wife, Michelle; and their two children, Natalie and Conner. They’ll open the package containing the ring together and have dinner to celebrate a belated birthday for Brian.
For Brown, it’s nothing short of miraculous that a ring lost 48 years ago and more than 1,200 miles away is finding its way back to her parents.
“I have so many questions that will never be answered,” she said. “Like, how did it not get buried under [almost] 50 years of dirt and snow? How’d it come back up?”
For the Autenrieths, the ring symbolizes happy years spent together – Karen laughing at Bob’s jokes and Bob treasuring Karen’s considerable skills as a cook.
“A ring is a commitment – it’s a circle,” Bob Autenrieth said. “A circle is forever.”