Eighteen months after losing his college sweetheart to Alzheimer’s disease, Bill Wittel was reunited with a piece of her he felt sure was gone forever.
When Ellen Wittel died in February 2021, Bill and their two daughters searched high and low for several pieces of her jewelry to no avail.
Then, a few weeks ago, Bill received a strange message.
“She said, ‘I found some items that I think might belong to you.’”
The call came from Rebecca Kitchens of Tifton, Ga., the former owner of the beach house the Wittels rented in St. George Island in 2016.
Thinking it was a scam, Bill started to blow the whole thing off, until Kitchens texted him a picture of the jewelry in question. It was Ellen’s.
Among the necklaces, bracelets and rings were items the family had searched high and low for, including the gold wedding band Bill gave Ellen nearly 60 years ago. Bill estimated the entire collection was worth $50,000.
It was a set of dog tags mixed in with the jewelry that led Kitchens to Ellen’s obituary and, eventually, to Bill.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Bill said. “I just think this was a God thing.”
Kitchens and her husband, Richard, were no stranger to sending forgotten items back to guests who’d left them behind, “but this time it didn’t happen that way,” she said. “No one said they had left anything.”
The Kitchens themselves weren’t even aware of the hidden jewelry until a few weeks ago. The Kitchens sold their beach house shortly after the Wittels’ last stay, Rebecca said, and the jewelry wound up in a box in Richard’s office.
“It sounds strange that we wouldn’t know, but what happened was some people were helping us move all the stuff out and it probably just got lost in some of our stuff,” Kitchens said. “We have lots of things from relatives who have died and left things, so we just assumed that’s what it was. We were just so delighted that he was able to get something back that was so important to him and to his daughters.”
According to Bill, a memory from about 35 years ago likely spurred Ellen to take the jewelry to the beach house and squirrel it away inside.
While the couple were staying in a resort in St. Thomas, a pair of thieves broke into their room and stole Ellen’s gold necklace. Not wanting to risk a repeat of the same ordeal, she took them with her rather than leaving them unguarded at home.
“I’m sure that was planted on her brain forever,” Bill said.
What’s interesting about Ellen, Bill said, is she rarely, if ever, wore most of the jewelry she owned. She accessorized very simplistically, with a modest pair of earrings, a gold chain and her mother’s wedding rings.
“She just wasn’t flashy,” Bill said.
Besides her extensive career in real estate, Ellen had a dry wit and unrivaled sense of humor.
“Everybody who knew her said that she was the funniest woman in Gainesville,” Bill said. “She had such a sweet spirit; I don’t think she had an enemy. Very flat-footed, very practical, she could make a joke and never crack a smile. (She was) devoted to her daughters for sure. We were very blessed to have 54 years together.”
Bill and Ellen met at Roanoke College Salem, Virginia, in 1963. Bill was 18, Ellen was 19.
Ten years later, they moved to Gainesville. Bill still lives in the home they bought in the early 1980s.
“We walked into it and said, ‘This would be a great house to grow old in.’ And we did.”
For Bill, the return of Ellen’s jewelry provided a sense of closure, like a final chapter drawing to a resolved close.
“God is good. He’s working in ways that we just can’t imagine. It’s bittersweet. I felt like I was pulled back by grief for about a year, and now I feel like I’m going forward. It’s just delightful to have this happen. A big surprise.”