06/08/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Jennifer O'Bryan's son struck gold, quite literally, in his front yard. "Mommy, can I keep this?" asked 5-year-old Caleb, holding up a man's ring he had unearthed while helping his mom install a path outside their Farmington, N.Y., house on April 22. Perplexed, O'Bryan, a home-maker, inspected the ring and found an engraved message: J.A. to G.G. 5/15/48.
Another gardener might have pocketed the treasure. But O'Bryan, 36, who still cherishes the gold band given to her by her late husband, Kenneth (he died of cancer in 1994), knew she had a job to do—and fast. "It hit me," says the mother of five, who's engaged to an accountant, "that if I could find the owner of the ring, I could give it back for [his] 50th anniversary."
That day, O'Bryan rushed to Town Hall to scan neighborhood property records but couldn't find a match for the initials. She placed a classified ad in her local paper, but again no luck. Finally, several days later, a town clerk phoned with the address of a semiretired construction worker—Gordon Gardner, 70—who wed in 1948. The ring was his.
And, sadly, his alone. When Gardner stopped by O'Bryan's house on May 1, he explained that his wife, Janette Albrecht, had died of a stroke six years ago. "He's got a tough exterior, but you could see the tears," says O'Bryan. As for the ring, he had last seen it in 1949 and presumed it stolen from his truck. "I caught hell," says Gardner, who lives near his two grown children in Clifton Springs. "It was the first thing she missed."
Gardner is clearly happy to have his ring back. In fact he offered O'Bryan a reward. "What can I do for you, dear?" he asked. Her reply? "You've already done it."