While looking for prehistoric shark teeth, Dr. Brian Tovin saw the glint of something shiny in gravel at the bottom of the Cooper River.
At first, Tovin thought he was seeing a fishing lure. What he picked up, though, was a big surprise.
Tovin, of Atlanta, found a class ring that he would soon learn was lost 38 years ago. He spotted it on Aug. 23 in water so inky that a diving light provided only about 3 feet of visibility.
“You feel like you are in another world,” he said.
He saw that the ring was engraved with the initials RLP, which it turned out was short for Robert L. Phillips of Moncks Corner. The 1974 College of Charleston graduate lost the ring during a boat trip with his wife Nancy.
“It’s especially unbelievable at this time in his life,” she said.
Phillips has been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Eric Phillips of Charlotte, son of Robert Phillips, said the ring came loose and fell into the river as his dad shook his hand to loosen a pop top ring that stuck on a finger after opening a beverage.
His father is excited to have the college ring back after all these years. It has instantly become the most notable heirloom in the family.
“It means a lot to our family,” Eric Phillips said. “I will guard that thing with my life.”
Robert Phillips, 61, was tracked down through the combined efforts of college officials, local dive charter captain John Cercopely and Daryl Elder, a former co-worker of Robert Phillips’ at an auto body shop.
“What are the odds of finding a class ring at the bottom of the Cooper River?” Elder asked.
Tovin has the ring at his residence. He plans to return it in person to Robert Phillips or, if that is not possible, he will ship it. CNN has told him that it wants to document the story if he goes back to Charleston with the ring, he said.
“It just amazes me,” Tovin said. “You never know what you are going to find in the Cooper River.”
Tovin was diving from Cercopely’s charter boat in an area known as “The Tee” because it is where the east and west branches of the Cooper River join in Berkeley County.
During the dive, he collected glass bottles and a clay pipe from the 1700s as well as shark teeth measuring several inches long.
Diving in the dark waters can be dangerous because of the currents and limited visibility. Alligators are known to live along the shoreline. But for Tovin, scouring the river bottom is a passion.
“It’s addicting,” he said. “It’s just the thrill of the hunt.”