By: Terry Harris, Staff Writer
12:36 p.m. | August 3, 2017
SUSSEX – The incident began with a frantic phone call. The final result was a trio of commendations at last week’s Sussex County Board of Supervisors Meeting when Board Chairman Susan Seward recognized the outstanding efforts of Matthew Venable, Director of Environmental Inspections for Sussex County, George Taylor, also with the County Department of Environmental Inspections, and Jason Williams, District Manager of Atlantic Waste Disposal. But first, she presented a clip from CBS Channel 6 – WTVR, Richmond, chronicling the search the men instituted through tons of garbage in late June heat at the Sussex County Landfill for one paper towel – containing local woman Jonnie Asby’s wedding rings. After the meeting, Ashby, Venable, and Williams shared the rest of the story.
“I had come home from helping with Bible School at Sharon United Methodist Church that Monday,” Ashby said, “and my knuckles were so swollen I put soap on my hands to get the rings off and then laid them on a paper towel. One of my granddaughters and I were going to the store, and I decided at the last minute to take the garbage to the dumpster on the way. Rather than waste a trash bag, I grabbed a big old yellow Dollar General bag, ran around in a hurry like I usually do, and grabbed up all the trash – and along with that, I grabbed that paper towel. It wasn’t until Tuesday morning as I was getting ready for Bible School that I realized I had thrown that paper towel – and my rings – out in the trash!”
A quick trip to the dumpster revealed that the container that had been practically empty the morning before was now piled nearly to the top with tons of garbage and discarded building materials – all on top of that paper towel with her rings in it. Her only hope for finding them would require an extreme act of kindness.
“I knew right off the bat from her tone of voice that these rings were very important to her,” Venable said of the call from the local widow. “I told her that I didn’t want to get her hopes up because I knew what a feat it was going to be. It felt like it was just going to be impossible.”
“They could have easily said, ‘Ma’am, we can’t find ‘em,’ and let it go.’” Ashby said. “But they didn’t.”
Instead, the men secured the 40-ton dumpster and moved it to an isolated area at the landfill. There it was held until it could be emptied onto tarps and the grueling task of digging through the mountain of garbage piece by piece in the sweltering heat – a process Williams described as similar to the proverbial needle in a haystack – could begin.
Meanwhile, Ashby waited for what she said felt like forever to learn the fate of the treasured reminders of her 55-year marriage to the love of her life, Bill Ashby, who had passed away in 2013. Finally, on Wednesday afternoon, her phone rang. It was Venable, calling to tell her that he was on the way to her house – with her rings.
“I was so excited I didn’t know what to do!” she exclaimed. “It was like a miracle. I’d never seen him before in my life, but when he got up to the door I was so excited I just said, ‘May I give you a hug?’ I really admire these men. These men work really hard for the citizens of Sussex county without hearing much positive about what they do, and I think we need to give credit when credit is due.”
Ashby, who is surrounded at home by photos of her husband, continued, “We had a special sign. We would hold up one hand, palm forward, toward each other. That symbolizes never ending love. We did that all the time. He always drew pictures of a hand on notes he wrote for me and even carved a little wooden hand for me. And you know, I knew that God had a hand in this. That diamond was a special gift from my husband that he picked out and had mounted for me when we got married 1958, and I would see it on my hand and think of that. I looked at my husband that night – because I always say good night – and I said, ‘Did you send your guardian angel part down here today? I know you did.’ Then I got down on my knees and said, ‘Thank you, God, for giving those men the eyesight to find my rings.”
Williams, who actually found the rings, said that Ashby’s detailed description of the big, yellow bag into which she had tossed the paper towel aided immeasurably in their search, and the men seemed surprised by the attention their act of kindness garnered, insisting that they were just glad that they were able to do something for a member of their community. Ashby offered a very different perspective.
“I am delighted over the notice the story on Channel 6 got about what they did,” Ashby said. “People don’t let people know when something GOOD happens. This was an incredibly kind thing that they did, and that news story of what they did – I think it’s been shown everywhere! I got a call from Molly Welch at CBS in New York that it had been picked up nationally and already seen in 27 other markets – even San Diego! I just hope it brings a lot of hope and faith – and a message about the importance of kindness – to a lot of people!”