Karen and Robert Autenrieth

Karen and Robert Autenrieth dance together at a wedding in 2011. (Courtesy Karen Autenrieth/TNS)

Karen Autenrieth vividly remembers the day she lost her wedding ring.

“It was very cold and the snow plows had plowed the snow up onto the curbs,” she said. “I had parked my car in front of my grandmother’s house and I was climbing over mounds of snow, helping each kid get into the car. My hands were cold — I didn’t have mittens on — and my ring just flew into the snow.”

She dug around for a bit — her three kids, ages 2, 3 and 4, waiting in the car — but to no avail. She went back after the snow melted and searched some more, but no luck.

That was 1973. Her grandmother lived near 117th Street and Artesian Avenue.

Now, 48 years and the invention of Facebook later, the ring and Autenrieth have been reunited, thanks to a combination of serendipity and two local historians with a flair for solving mysteries.

She and her husband, Robert, plan to slip it back onto her finger on Valentine’s Day.

The ring’s journey back to the Autenrieths began, funnily enough, with another lost wedding ring.

At the beginning of February, as the city was digging out from its first big snow dump of the year, a Chicago resident posted on Facebook that he lost his wedding ring in the snow and wondered if anyone had a hand-held metal detector. One of his Facebook friends commented that, speaking of wedding rings, she found one around eight years ago while gardening at her house near Artesian Avenue and 117th Street. The ring had initials and a date, but she never had any luck finding the owner.

Chicagoan Clare Duggan saw the comment string and tagged Ridge Historical Society, hoping the researchers there could help locate the owner of the ring found while gardening.

“I said, ‘Sure! This is the kind of thing we love to look into,’” said Carol Flynn, a researcher at Ridge Historical Society, which studies the history of Morgan Park, Beverly and surrounding communities.

Flynn contacted historian and genealogist Linda Lamberty, who jumped at the offer.

“I love being able to do stuff like this,” Lamberty said. “This is the kind of research that gets you into the gestalt of a family.”

The ring’s inscription provided a tasty lead: “RA to K.B. 4-16-66.”

Flynn and Lamberty dug into newspaper archives, ancestry websites and real estate records for the house where the ring turned up during gardening. In a Chicago Tribune record from January 1955, they found one Albert Witt offering his opinion on pending speed limit legislation for the newspaper’s penny-for-your-thoughts feature. Witt’s address, which matched the house where the ring was found, was listed alongside his photo and his thoughts.

Witt, they learned, died in April 1955, and his obituary listed a surviving daughter: Claire Berk.

“I thought, ‘Ohhhhhh, B. This could be it,’” Lamberty said.

Claire Berk, they learned, had a daughter named Karen Berk.

“So here is our K.B.,” Flynn said. “I told Linda, ‘Unless it’s an unbelievable coincidence, it looks like we’ve found the owner.’”

Lamberty found a 2006 legacy.com obituary for Claire Berk’s sister, Mildred L. Hayes. Under the obituary was a note from Mildred’s niece:

“I was her flower girl at her wedding. I wore her dress when I got married 40 years ago. I am sad to hear that she has died but grateful that I had a chance to spend some time with her at my mother’s wake 2 years ago. I will remember her every day in my rosary. Love, Karen Berk Autenrieth.”

Karen Berk Autenrieth, who, in 2006, got married 40 years ago. RA to K.B. 4-16-66.

With a little more digging, Lamberty found a record of Karen Berk marrying Robert Autenrieth on April 16, 1966. Flynn tracked down a Karen and Robert Autenrieth in San Antonio and reached out to Karen Autenrieth on Facebook Messenger.

“You don’t know what you’re going to find when you reach out to these people,” Flynn said. “Are they still even together? Linda said something to the effect of, ‘Wouldn’t it be a shame after all this if the ring didn’t mean anything?’”

Flynn half expected to never hear back.

“I sent her this really enthusiastic, completely disjointed message at 2:30 in the morning,” Flynn said. “I went to bed thinking, ‘She’s probably going to think some crazy lady is trolling her.’”

Quite the opposite.

“Karen sends me a message, ‘Here’s my number,’” Flynn said. “I call her and we’re crying on the phone together. I was just so thrilled Karen was alive and well, and Robert was alive and well, and they were still happy and together.”

The Autenrieths and their three kids moved to Texas in 1982. Karen Autenrieth had long ago given up on ever seeing her ring again, until a little red Facebook notification hinted otherwise.

“I went, ‘Holy Mary, I can’t believe it,’” Karen Autenrieth said.

She gave Flynn her address. Flynn considered driving the ring to Texas, but settled on registered mail, signature required. Karen Autenrieth picked it up from the post office on Monday.

“Our 55th anniversary will be April 16,” Karen Autenrieth said. “And to think we’ll be getting the ring back after almost 50 years.”

Karen and Robert Autenrieth got married at St. Walter Catholic Church in Morgan Park when she was 20 and he was 21.

“Somebody said to me the other day, ‘What’s the secret to a happy marriage?’” Karen Autenrieth said. “And I said, ‘Marry your friend.’”

She said she doesn’t remember a lot of drama around the ring being lost. She cried, she said. Her husband said not to worry too much about it. He had the diamond from her engagement ring set into a band and she wore that as her wedding ring.

Soon that band will be joined by the original, the one that reads, “RA to K.B. 4-16-66.”

The Autenrieth’s youngest son, Brian, just turned 49 and the family will gather on Valentine’s Day to celebrate his birthday. The kids asked their mom to promise she wouldn’t open the ring until they were all together to see.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect reunion of ring to finger than one surrounded by all the love that ring set into motion and came to represent — even when it sat miles and miles away.

“It’s just such a heartwarming story at a time when everyone needs something to warm their hearts,” Lamberty said. “And the very first kudos should go to Karen’s husband, Robert, for engraving that ring in the first place. If that had not been the case, it would’ve been like sifting for gold.”

Instead, they returned a little band of it to its rightful owners, whose love story continues.


(Contact Heidi Stevens at hstevens@chicagotribune.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)

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