Stuart Settle was on a 1986 summer beach trip to South Nags Head, North Carolina, with a group of childhood friends when he lost his JMU student ID card in the midst of a hurricane. Entrusted on the first night with numerous friends’ funds for the week, Settle placed the money in his vintage, velcro-folding Ocean Pacific wallet next to his student ID for safekeeping. He shoved the wallet in the pocket of his swim trunks and took a walk on the beach. One monster wave later, Settle and his friends were knocked on their backs, and the wallet was gone.
“Everybody was digging down in the sand and dipping down in the water trying to find it,” Settle said. “It had to be right there, but nobody found it.”
As Hurricane Charley tore through Nags Head in the days that followed and the beach became ruins, Settle and his friends didn’t expect to see the wallet, or its contents, ever again.
“We spent a lot of time up and down the beach combing,” Paul Franklin, one of Settle’s childhood friends among those on the trip, said. “I was certain it was lost forever.”
Fast-forward 32 years.
In late September 2018, Holly Owen Clark, a preschool teacher from Manteo, North Carolina, went looking for sea glass at Coquina Beach near Oregon Inlet, North Carolina, two days after a devastating hit from Hurricane Florence. She stopped when she came across an interesting find in the sand — the top laminated side of Settle’s JMU student ID.
“There’s always a lot of debris after a storm, like plastic, and it was just sitting on top of the sand,” Clark said.
Still visible on the front of the card is Settle’s name, the date (May 1986), Settle’s signature and the old JMU logo. Clark knew what she’d found was special and decided to reach out to Settle.
A few days later, at his home in Richmond, Virginia, Settle was shocked to receive a Facebook message from Clark, a complete stranger, detailing her unique find and an offer to mail the remnants of his student ID back to him. Having forgotten about the ordeal until recently, he was astounded to learn the card had only traveled approximately 10 miles, just south of where he’d lost it.
“It must’ve worked its way down into the sand somehow and stayed there for many, many years through many, many storms,” Settle said.
He suspects Hurricane Florence ravaged the coast and resurfaced part of the missing card. The record-breaking storm, which was a category 4 but made landfall in North Carolina as a category 1, was one of the strongest the Outer Banks has faced in years.
Settle’s wife, Becky, says it’s incredible that Clark found it, but even more incredible that she took the time to reach out to Settle. She says she wouldn’t have gone through as much trouble to get in touch with him.
“If I was cleaning up the beach and I found that, it would have gone right in the trash,” Becky said.
Clark says she’s been beachcombing for years, but rarely frequents Coquina. She normally ventures further south in the Outer Banks to Pea Island, but opted for Coquina because of bridge closings preventing access to her usual spot in the aftermath of Florence. She likes to think it’s fate that she was there the day when what’s left of Settle’s card resurfaced.
“That’s the only time I’ve walked the beach [in Coquina] to look for beach glass,” Clark said. “I haven’t been there probably in 10 years.”
Since becoming reunited with the remnants of his student ID, Stuart has posted his story in a Facebook group titled “JMU Nation,” garnering over 1,000 likes and 60 comments from users sharing pictures of their old JMU IDs. It’s gone viral among the JMU community.
“I was shocked that it went over a thousand [likes],” Stuart said. “But JMU is a pretty tight-knit community even after this many years, and everyone I know that has gone to JMU is super nice.”
Stuart’s friends from the trip think it’s safe to say his wallet — and the rest of his ID card — are gone forever, and they’ve accepted that they may never get their money back. Despite this, Franklin is impressed with how well the lamination has held up over the years.
“We’ve seen what plastic is doing to our environment, and this is a good example of how durable it is,” Franklin said. “I guess JMU makes some good ID cards.”
Tim Brightwell, another childhood friend from the 1986 summer trip, says discovering Stuart’s card partially intact after 32 years at sea is a “once-in-a-lifetime thing,” and thinks the chances of finding the wallet and his cash are “one in a trillion.”
Stuart highly doubts he’ll ever be reunited with his velcro-folding Ocean Pacific wallet or the rest of his student ID in a similar manner, but in his Facebook post, he encourages others in the Nags Head area to search for it if they’re up for a challenge.
“No idea where the rest is,” Stuart wrote. “But there’s a vintage OP wallet with a little cash in it out there somewhere between Nags Head and Oregon Inlet if you want to do a little treasure hunting.”
Contact Amy Needham at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.