What would you do if you were cleaning out a garage and found an old box full of photos of people you didn’t know?
Most people would just throw it away, but not Donny Hamilton.
Maybe it was his background in anthropology and nautical archaeology that caused him to pause when he found the old box 53 years ago in a car stored at his parent’s wrecking yard in Pecos,Texas.. The Texas A&M University professor of nautical archaeology and director of the Conservation Research Laboratory just naturally had to open the box and, once he saw the papers and old family photos, he had to find out more about the people in the photos.
“I had been looking for Peter Ingwersen, the owner of the box, off and on for the past 50 or so years, but with renewed interest in the past 20 years,” says Hamilton. “In my work I do a lot of genealogical research and this led me to research my own family history. From this I knew how much the Ingwersen family photographic albums meant to someone, and I was determined to get them back to the family.”
The story begins in July of 1959 when Ingwersen closed out his apartment and, planning a two-month trip to his former home in Neumuenster, Germany, had loaded his car and gone to stay at a friend’s house for a few days before leaving on his trip. He also planned to store his things there until his return. He woke the next day to find the car, with all his possessions still stored in it, had been stolen.
The car turned up days later in Pecos but he was informed that nothing remained in it except the boots his father had worn when he was in the German military. Police told him that the two AWOL airmen from the Amarillo AFB, who had stolen the 1949 Ford, had most likely dumped the contents on the side of the road before blowing the car’s engine and then getting arrested.
“That loss was more than a shock to me,” Ingwersen said. “The items in the car included several irreplaceable family photo albums with pictures that dated back to 1920 and even one from 1913.”
He adds that, as the years went by, he many times wished for the lost photos to pass on to his daughter and grandchildren. What he didn’t know was that some of the items had been found and saved by the Hamiltons, who owned the wrecking yard where the car eventually ended up.
Then, 53 years later on Oct. 25, 2012, Ingwersen received a call from someone who said, “You don’t know me but my name is Donny Hamilton and I am delighted to have finally found you.” Hamilton went on to explain how he moved the items that were in the car and stored them at his family’s home since they must be important family keepsakes. During a visit home in 1978, he packed up the material and brought them to Bryan so he could continue the search for the family.
Hamilton started researching the items, which included an envelope with German money. He also found pressed flowers inside one of the albums. With the help of his graduate student, Hamilton researched the flowers and found they were Edelweiss. They also found that the mountain forces of the German army, at the end of their training, were required to go up a mountain above 6,000 feet where the Edelweiss grow and pick one and then get back to the base within 6 hours. Only then were they allowed to wear the Edelweiss flower insignia on their uniform.
Next he enlisted the help of Norbert Dannhaeuser, a professor in the Anthropology Department at Texas A&M, to translate a letter he wrote into German. He sent the letter to everyone named Ingwersen in Neumuenster, Germany in 2000, but didn’t have any luck.
After examining more of the contents of the box, he noticed a high school graduation certificate from Amarillo and, while monitoring a class test one day, Googled “Amarillo High School Class of 1959” and the class website had a class roster on it. Peter Ingwersen was listed. It turns out that Peter had posted his information on the site just weeks earlier. “It’s amazing what you can find on the Internet,” Hamilton adds.
After a few more bumps in the road, such as wrong contact information, Hamilton finally located the owner of the box and made that important call.
Such research into the lives of people who lived long ago is perfectly natural to Hamilton, whose past and present research includes the conservation of artifacts recovered from the shipwreck of the 1554 Spanish Fleet, excavated off the coast of Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico; the excavation and conservation of the material from the sunken 17th-century English town of Port Royal in Jamaica; and the excavation and analysis of archaeological materials from Granado Cave in West Texas . He is presently in charge of conserving the extensive collection of material recovered from the excavation of La Salle’s ship, the Belle, which sank in 1686 in Matagorda Bay.
“The story finally had a happy ending, however the friendship will last forever,” said Ingwersen. His daughter and grandchildren are enjoying learning about their family from the photos and Ingwersen, a retired United Airlines captain now living in California, and his wife, Betty, were able to visit Hamilton in College Station earlier this month.
Hamilton adds that “they are delightful people and we had a great time talking and learning even more about each other. I saw first-hand what it meant for him to get back what he thought was gone forever. As he told me, he now has something to leave to his daughter and grandchildren. It really made me feel good that I persevered all these years and the way things finally fell into place as I sat bored in class while proctoring a test.”
Ingwersen notes that Hamilton, “certainly showed me that honesty, perseverance and kindness are still alive in this world.”
Media contact: Tura King, Division of Marketing & Communications, at (979) 845-4670