At their North Lakeland home on Friday afternoon, Faith and Hope Ring, 11-year-old twins, and their little sister Grace, 7, put on their prettiest party dresses, painted their nails with sparkly polish and yowled as their mom pulled their hair into half up-dos as they got ready for the McKeel Academy Father/Daughter Dance.
The annual event at the Lakeland charter school is something that U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer James Ring, 38, has always taken his girls to. But this year, the 2001 Bartow High School graduate and former Lakeland Police Department sergeant was deployed to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and was scheduled to be on a mission guarding a defense department official the night of the dance.
“Horrible because it’s our last one,” Hope said when asked how she felt about her Dad being gone. She said in years past, he had taken them out to dinner before heading to the school’s gymnasium for the formal party. The girls were, however, looking forward to their grandpa taking them.
“It’s his first one,” Faith said about her grandfather, Rick Sherman. “He really doesn’t like doing things — he likes staying at home a lot and so he is taking his time to come to the dance with us.”
What they didn’t know Friday afternoon was that their Dad, who left on his latest Army deployment Jan. 1, asked his commanding officer if they could rearrange his schedule so he could be home in Lakeland on Feb. 21. To his surprise and delight, his commander made it happen.
“I feel like a kid — I haven’t slept,” Ring said about an hour before the dance was set to begin. “I was thinking about this all night, how I would do it, how they would react. I just can’t wait to see the expression on their face.”
Ring was raised by a single mother and spent parts of his childhood homeless or living in public housing. His father wasn’t in his life then, which gives him a keen appreciation now of the role dads should play. So he slipped into town Friday afternoon, showered and put on his dress uniform at Gold’s Gym, then stopped by his old office at Lakeland Police headquarters to reminisce with friends.
He remembered receiving a call to go to a car accident just after he had made sergeant that involved two people who had been thrown from their vehicle and two other people were trapped inside. When he arrived, he saw that power lines were dangling over the car.
“I remember a young lady who was stuck in that vehicle and the only things I could do at that moment was grab her hand and say a prayer with her,” Ring said. “And so I did. And what I thought would be the outcome was not the outcome — and that was by the grace of God — and today there are four people who are still alive.”
In 2017, Ring retired from the police department and went into business with his father and brother. They started Ring Roofing, which has earned The Ledger’s Best of Polk County roofers for the last two years.
He also remained in the Army Reserves because he said he felt being in the military would put him in a better position to help veterans, who sometimes struggle with addiction and mental health issues.
His wife of more than a decade, Candi Ring, was in on Friday’s surprise. The couple met when she worked at a local ice cream shop and they married in 2010 just a few months after he returned from deployment in Iraq. Candi’s family has struggled in the last year — her brother died six months ago and her mother has had serious health issues. Her parents moved from Ohio to Lakeland recently to be closer to Candi, who works as a professor and curriculum developer at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“I think it’s a very honorable thing to do,” Candi said about her husband’s service. As for Friday night’s festivities, she added, “I’m really excited. I know the girls will be really excited, too, and I’m glad he was able to make it to be there for them because a lot of soldiers don’t get to come home for that.”
As she spoke, Hope and Faith were adjusting their matching blue lace dresses, while Grace showed off her gold and white dress with a bow in the back. Across town, Ring explained that his girls’ names have deep meaning.
When Candi got pregnant with the twins, the doctor explained that they had a medical condition and would likely not survive the pregnancy. The doctor recommended that the couple either end the pregnancy or abort one of the fetuses to give the other a chance to live. They went home devastated and prayed and cried. That night they went to dinner at Steak ‘n Shake.
“There was a local revival in town and there was a gentleman that turned around — and we weren’t talking about anything. We couldn’t talk. There was nothing that we could say — we were just floored,” Ring said. “A gentleman turned around and said, ‘God wanted me to tell you something. He wanted me to tell you that you’re going to have two beautiful girls and to know that He is with you.’
“And as crazy as that sounds, it gave us life. And it gave us hope. We had two beautiful, healthy girls and so that’s why they were named Hope and Faith.”
Before Grace came along, the couple was struggling in their marriage and came close to divorce. Ring said friends, their counselor and their pastor intervened. A few months later, Grace was conceived.
“So that’s why we named her Grace, because we felt it was the grace of God that brought us back together,” he said.
At McKeel Academy just after sunset, daughters and fathers began pouring into the school — dads in coats and ties and daughters in fancy dresses and tiaras. Everyone shivered from the frigid wind that blew across the parking lot.
Ring and Candi slipped into the school’s office, where staff — also in on the big secret — let them sit in the principal’s office to wait on their daughters’ arrival. The girl’s pulled up in style in a white Hummer limousine with several of their friends and fathers inside. One of Ring’s friends was inside, texting him their progress.
Just after 7 p.m., Ring stepped into a breezeway and held a dozen pink and white balloons in front of his face. The girls climbed out of the limousine and walked through the school’s main entrance, starting to head into the dance.
Faith spotted him first and shrieked, “Daddy!” Within seconds, he was enveloped by his three girls, who sobbed and hugged him. The family made their way into the gymnasium and the DJ stopped the music and announced the Ring family’s entrance, inviting them onto the dance floor where they swayed and cried some more. Ring lifted Grace into his arms as the twins held onto him.
“Family is everything,” Ring had said about an hour earlier. “I’ve been in the military and in law enforcement for 19 years and, as a result, I’ve missed quite a few family events. And so attending events like this is very important to me and that’s why, for the past four years, I’ve made it a priority to attend each one of these events.”
Ring heads back to Fort Belvoir on Sunday evening.
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