December 30, 1963 - June 28, 2000
The Huntsville Times. Alabama.
A TROUBLED GOODBYE
By Mike Marshall
Times Staff Writer
Kevin Ring was so devoted to his kids, to his school, that the principal called him a hero.
So it came as even more of a shock when Ring took his own life.
His back ached. His temples throbbed with migraines so severe that he dropped his head in his hands every now and then. He wore a morphine patch. He took so many pills that his 10-year-old son mapped out a medication schedule on their home computer.
His name was Kevin Ring. He was born in Massachusetts on New Year's Eve 1963. He died on June 28, in a bathroom in a park in Decatur, a suicide note in his wheelchair.
For the funeral, Kevin was dressed in a new suit and one of his favorite Hawaiian shirts. His son, Tyler, asked for an earring to be placed in his father's recently pierced right ear.
A Diet Coke lay in the casket. Kevin always gulped Diet Coke after Diet Coke because his medication, Valium and morphine among them, made his mouth dry.
After the funeral, Kevin's wife, Debbie, told Williams Elementary School Principal Lee McAllister: ''I had no idea about any of this.''
No one else in his family knew about the $8,124.50 that he was accused of taking from a PTA fund. Neither did most of his friends.
If they had known, said Debby Howell, the former Williams PTA president who had put Kevin on the PTA board, they would have raised the money for him. They would have tried to ease his suffering because he had done so much to help the school - combing children's hair before yearbook pictures, even.
Actually, one of them knew about the missing money and had arranged to give Kevin more than the $8,124.50 he needed. But Kevin had too much pride to ask for help.
So he placed a 9 mm pistol under his chin and fired.
''A hero,'' McAllister called him.
Little by little, the disease was gnawing at his 6-foot-3, 230-pound body. Already, he could not walk. Arthritis had crept in. He knew his spine would wither away - all because a tick had bitten his left arm during Army maneuvers in a New Jersey field.
Three years after the symptoms appeared, after the chills and the vomiting and the misdiagnoses, an Army doctor told him in the summer of 1993 what the tick had given him: Lyme disease.
The Army discharged him later that summer. He never worked again. Instead, he went to school.
In the mornings, he and his children - Keri, now 13, and Tyler, 10, - climbed into his 1990 Ford van, blue and silver stripes on the side, Disabled Veteran tag on the back.
They made the three-mile drive down Zierdt Road, from Sun Lake ''The school became his whole life. It was his family, his social life - everything.
He was an unsung hero. Every school wishes they had someone like Kevin.'' Debby Howell, former president, Williams PTA Apartments to Williams Middle School. Usually, Kevin stayed at school the rest of the day.
For two years, he wired the school's 50-plus classrooms, trying to connect the elementary and technology middle school to the Internet. Sometimes, he worked alone until 11 p.m., then returned on the weekends.
''You had to see it to believe it,'' said Benjamin Hicks, a technology teacher at the school. ''If you can imagine being in a wheelchair, moving the ceiling tile with a stick, then moving the wire over the ceiling with another stick, then bringing the wire down the wall (through) a conduit.''
Other times, he was forced to pull himself out of his wheelchair. Using his thick arms and barrel chest, he climbed up a ladder, always mindful of spectators.
''That was not something he did with an audience,'' McAllister said. ''He was conscious of his disability.''
His whole life
He baked chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies in an oven at the school, then sold the cookies at lunch and after school, raising funds for the PTA, an organization he served as president and treasurer.
He went to field days, kite days and carnivals. He went to snow cone parties that were designed to promote greater reading.
He went to monthly skating parties and steered his wheelchair onto the floor. When the students decided to form a train, he joined in, too, clutching a rope that allowed them to pull him across the rink.
He went to the hospital to give a Beanie Baby to a second-grade girl who had fallen from the monkey bars on the school playground. He wore a Santa Claus suit and wandered the halls as the Christmas holidays neared.
He attended school board meetings. He was one of 32 people named to a strategic planning committee that included top city and school officials.
He went to Keri's Girl Scouts meetings. He would have been chosen to lead Keri's troop, said Debbie Ring, but his gender got in the way.
Almost every day, he ate lunch with his children in the school cafeteria. Debby Howell, then president of the Williams PTA, told Kevin he was luckiest father in the world - he spent day after day with his kids.
''The school became his whole life,'' Howell said. ''It was his family, his social life - everything. He was an unsung hero. Every school wishes they had someone like Kevin.''
Howell was so impressed with Kevin's devotion to the school that she appointed him to the Williams PTA in 1995. He served two terms as treasurer, then two terms as president, then another term as treasurer.
Then, last winter, he told PTA members that he had ordered five computers with his own money. He turned in a voucher for $8,124.50, requesting reimbursement.
The company sent an invoice demanding payment, and the PTA discovered that Ring had not sent payment for computers. The spring brought an auditor and more discoveries: First, the discrepancy in the PTA financial records, then legal advice to the PTA, then the detectives meeting with Kevin.
''We were devastated,'' Howell said. ''We were hoping it wouldn't turn out this way. We couldn't understand how this could happen to him in the first place.''
In June, the incident was reported to police. The charge was first-degree theft.
On the morning of June 27, a Tuesday, Kevin Ring woke up on the living-room couch, as he usually did. He liked to sleep on the couch, sometimes sitting up, because the cushions eased the pressure in his back.
After waking, he told his family that he had a doctor's appointment that day at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Birmingham. For some reason, he said, he had not remembered the appointment until that morning - rather odd, considering Kevin's sharp mind.
In addition to the medication schedule on the home computer, he kept a record of his doctor's appointments. In a lot of ways, he was still a military man. He was still regimented. He cooked for Keri and Tyler. He did their laundry, took them on field trips. He taught himself how to use computers. He repaired second-hand printers, logged in passwords for students, set up the school's computer server.
But forget his own doctor's appointment?
''I don't think he ever made it there (to the hospital in Birmingham),'' Debbie said.
Kevin Ring was born into a life of affluence. His father, Frank, was a New Jersey factory owner. His father's company, Starkey, manufactured hearing aids.
Kevin had three brothers, all of whom went into the family business. Right out of high school, Kevin enlisted in the Army.
Among his stops was Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. On July 5, 1985, he met Debbie, his wife, then an employee of the Pin Palace bowling alley. Two months later, they were married.
Kevin was transferred to Nuremberg, West Germany. Three years in Nuremberg, then Fort Drum in Watertown, N.Y., then the maneuvers in New Jersey and the tick bite, then the nausea and the flu-like symptoms and the wondering.
Keri was born, then Tyler. By Christmas 1991, the Lyme disease already was taking hold of Kevin. He needed a cane to walk.
The winters in Watertown, in upstate New York, near Lake Ontario, were cold and damp - and hard on Kevin. The chill made his bones ache.
Undaunted, Kevin still planned on being a career military man. He wound up lasting eight years, until the doctors finally diagnosed Kevin with Lyme disease. Late in the summer of 1993, the Rings had moved to Huntsville, where Debbie's parents lived.
His struggles with military doctors were over, but his struggles with the Veterans Administration board were beginning. He fought for 100 percent disability. Eighty percent disabled, the Army classified him.
''They wouldn't grant him what he asked for because he could move his feet,'' Debbie said. ''He could take a lot of things with a grain of salt, but not that.''
People started noticing changes in Kevin after a meeting last year in Washington, D.C., with the VA board. McAllister thought Kevin was distant and depressed. Debbie Howell saw similar signs, then tried to boost him by telling him he was luckiest dad in the world.
More and more, Kevin seemed down on his luck. Howell thought he looked confused.
In January, on his way home from a VA Hospital appointment, he crashed his van into a telephone poll on Martin Road. Later, some mix-ups with medication caused him more medical problems.
But now, after what happened in the bathroom of Rhodes Ferry Park in Decatur on June 28, Kevin's friends wonder: Was the wreck the first suicide attempt and the confusion with the medication the second?
''He was not being as talkative when he came to (school),'' McAllister said. ''He withdrew a little. But he was always involved in things.''
To the students and the parents, he was always ''Cookie Man'' because he made and sold cookies for the PTA. To McAllister, he was always the parent who had been nominated for state PTA Volunteer of the Year.
But more and more, Kevin's frustration was seeping into his blue eyes. First, the lost muscle tone in his legs, then an admission to Hicks, the computer teacher at Williams: Ultimately, there was no cure for the disease.
''Because of his ailment, he was getting progressively worse,'' Hicks said. ''He knew he was getting worse. That was his struggle.''
The struggle welled up inside of him, and, finally, the announcement about the forgotten doctor's appointment in Birmingham. At 8 a.m. on June 27, he kissed his wife goodbye and left Apartment 2005, where his family had lived since moving to Huntsville.
And he never came back.
Around 10 a.m. on June 28 at Rhodes Ferry Park in Decatur: A bystander watched Kevin go into the men's bathroom.
The bathroom was in the far corner of the park, near the Tennessee River, a clump of tall oaks, a walking trail and a playground. The bathroom was small, about the size of closet, and in Kevin's wheelchair, it must have been a tough fit.
By then, Tyler and Keri knew their father had been charged with theft. The day before, a TV reporter had appeared at the Rings' apartment and asked Tyler and Keri about the accusations.
What accusations, they wanted to know.
Debbie, working the afternoon shift at Lowe's in Madison, had found out when the kids called her at work. Debbie raced home, then punched in Kevin's cellular phone number.
No answer. Kevin had turned off his cellular phone. No answer the next day, either, when Kevin was at the park.
One by one, Kevin wrote the suicide notes to family and school officials, then dropped them in the mail. He wrote the notes in an 80-page notebook that he had bought after leaving the apartment.
On the first four pages of the notebook are some drawings, in blue ink:
and pine trees,
with Kevin's initials and the date, June 27, at the bottom; fishermen in a boat, their lines dropped in the water;
and a bridge.
Debbie and the kids received their notes around 10 a.m. on June 28, about the time Kevin was going into the bathroom at Rhodes Ferry Park. The notes arrived certified mail, with a Gardendale postmark.
In the note to his wife, he explained how he had taken care of the family. They had insurance, he told her.
He told the kids that he knew they would be angry - a perfectly natural reaction, he wrote - but he hoped the hurt would subside in the coming years. He also said he was sorry for ''the shame'' he had caused the family.
Almost every member of the Williams faculty attended the funeral. Scott Erwin, a member of the Huntsville city school board, was there, along with Mary Ruth Yates, now the interim superintendent of city schools.
Inside the casket, Kevin's blond hair was still closely cropped after his regular summer shave. Just before the lid shut, Tyler rolled his eyes, straining for a glimpse of his father's ears.
In Kevin's right ear was a diamond stud, just as Tyler had requested.
2000 The Huntsville Times.
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