50 YEARS LATER, A MAN AND HIS RING ARE TOGETHER AGAIN
Benjamin Flores’ class ring has great stories to tell: about Flores, who lost it shortly before deploying to Vietnam; about its moment on the arm of a Miss Universe contestant; about the time it spent buried in the sands of Florida; and less dramatically, about the decades it waited, tucked in the jewelry box of a man who spotted it during a walk on the beach, and about its round trip back to its Torero nearly a half century later.
The tale begins with Flores (pictured above, standing at right), one of 10 children, whose dad recommended the San Diego College for Men to his son in 1960, just six years after it opened, because it was touted as the “Notre Dame of the West.”
“My dad didn’t care what it took, he wanted all of his kids to go to Catholic universities,” says Flores ’64. “I worked hard washing dishes at night for the Colleges for Men and Women.”
During college, Flores helped establish a chapter of Phi Kappa Theta, a Catholic fraternity and was founding president of the International Club. He joined the cheerleading squad and helped name the Toreros when the College for Men mascot changed from the Pioneers in 1961.
Flores served dinner to Charger football players attending training camp at Alcalá Park after moving from Los Angeles to San Diego in 1961. He won oratorical contests and once played Judas so convincingly in a Passion play that he scared his cast mates.
After graduation, Flores was drafted into the military. An officer convinced him to sign up for an additional year, go through officer training and apply for flight school.
Flores, who always dreamed of flying airplanes, joined the Marines and reported to Quantico, Va., in March 1967 for Officer Candidates School.
That July, after graduating as an officer, Flores drove to Pensacola, Fla., for flight school. The day he arrived, Flores chatted with a captain over drinks and a game of dice. It turned out that the captain was charged with choosing escorts for the Miss Universe pageant, which was about to be held in Miami. When the day came, with his USD class ring on his finger, Flores took the arm of Miss Colombia for a nerve-wracking walk down a long flight of stairs and a waltz in the spotlight.
Later that summer, Flores lost the ring. He doesn’t know when or where, but remembers spending time at the Tiki Bar. It was near there that Bob and Donna Hoffbauer found it two years later, peeking out of the sand.
It was now the summer of 1969 and Flores was at California’s El Toro Air Station training on the F-4 Phantom II, a supersonic jet with a top speed of just over Mach 2.2 — more than twice the speed of sound.
He would go on to fly more than 100 combat missions in Vietnam, including two where he nearly lost his life — once when his 53,000-pound aircraft came slamming back down on the runway just seconds after takeoff, and another time after crash landing when he was forced to abort a mission because of failed hydraulics and make an emergency trip over the South China Sea to dump 12,500-pound bombs that were armed and about to explode.
“Ultimately, everything in my life happened through mercy and the grace of God,” Flores says. “He gave me these talents and opportunities. He was there to protect me and allowed me to live. I give God all the glory.”
Fast-forward to March 2013. Bob Hoffbauer passed away. The class ring was given to his grandson. The boy’s mother, Rachel Hoffbauer, made the call to USD that ultimately reunited Flores with his ring. “My in-laws tried to find the owner, but back then there was no Internet and it was practically impossible,” says Hoffbauer. “It sat in that jewelry box for 46 years waiting to be reunited with Benjamin.”
Flores was shocked when he heard from Hoffbauer.
“I was flabbergasted,” says Flores, who now lives on California’s central coast. “So much has happened since I lost it, but it still looks brand new. It brings back so many fond memories and I’ll always treasure it. I believe this all happened for a reason. Nothing is accidental. God is sovereign, he allowed that ring to be lost, to be found again and to come back to me at the exact right time in my life.” — Krystn Shrieve