Tovin hoped he could return the cherished ring to Phillips at his home, but Phillips -- now fighting cancer -- was not there. He was rushed into surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston last weekend for brain surgery.
That setback didn't stop a reunion 39 years in the making. A few days after Phillips' operation, Tovin met Phillips in the hospital. With his family by his side, Phillips sat in a hospital chair. His voice was barely above a whisper, but it was full of life as a stranger returned a part of his life to him.
Down on one knee, Tovin opened up a ring box to reveal Phillips's lost treasure.
"I was down there fighting strong currents and alligators trying to get you your ring back," said Tovin, as Phillips smiled.
"And I've got it here, and I know this is going to look like I'm proposing to you, so please don't tell my wife, OK," he said, as the room erupted in laughter.
"Wow. That is awesome," Phillips said.
Coming full circle
Then, Phillips began to tell Tovin and everyone the story that his family has heard endlessly -- the story of the lost ring.
"I was on the back of the boat. And I decided I needed a beer," he said softly.
"I pulled the pop top and when I did, my finger got caught in the pop top, and it went with it," he told Tovin.
"I guess I have to go have it sized now, don't I," he added with a grin.
"You've got a lot of years left. So, you're going to be wearing that ring," Tovin responded.
With his wife and two children watching this reunion of sorts, they all felt this ring would give their patriarch the comfort he needs right now.
"No matter how much time he has with us, we'll always have that ring. And it will always signify a good season of our life and a good memory of our father, and the fact that he got to share in it before he left us," Eric Phillips said.
In some ways, this decades-long loop of life has been closed, and a new story -- one that the Phillips family will be telling for generations -- has been written.
"Thank you Lord that I got it back," Robert Phillips said.
"I had a nightmare the other night that I lost it again," he said.
"No more beer cans," he laughed.