The Minneapolis Park Board wants two missing naval artifacts returned to their rightful place after the surprise discovery of both relics on display at Minnetonka High School.

After digging into the fate of a 600-pound bell from the USS Minneapolis, a Navy cruiser, and the 6-foot steering wheel from the USS Minnesota, the Southwest Journal learned that both were hiding in plain sight at Minnetonka High, home of the Skippers.

But the story of how they got there remains murky. The wheel was taken in 1975, while the bell disappeared in 2014. Richard Ward, a Minneapolis veteran who belongs to the American Legion, apparently obtained the items and gave them to the high school.

School officials said they weren't aware of their origins.

"We had no idea there was any controversy linked to the custodianship of either the bell or the wheel," said JacQui Getty, Minnetonka school district spokesperson. "This has been a big surprise to all of us."

Now the Park Board wants the nautical items back.

"We would love to have the whole collection back together," said MaryLynn Pulscher, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board's manager for environmental education and a self-described parks "history geek."

Park Board President Jono Cowgill wrote a public message Monday to the Minnetonka athletic department on Twitter: "Hey @TonkaSkippers, could you please return our bell and wheel?"

Getty said that the district had received no formal request to return the items. "We definitely feel if it is determined that another entity is the rightful custodian of [the] naval treasures, we will of course give them back," she said.

Pulscher said the Park Board plans to send a letter to the district next week. She's happy the school has taken care of the items, she said, and there's no rush to get them back.

'Reverence and respect'

Both the wheel and the bell once were part of a naval memorial on the northeastern shore of Bde Maka Ska. Pieces of that memorial, including two rocks and a replica of a ship's mast, are still there, Pulscher said.

After the wheel went missing in 1975, no one saw it again, she said. About six years ago, the bell also disappeared. Park maintenance staffers said they saw Ward remove it and thought he was going to restore and return it, she said.

Pulscher said that Ward, who didn't respond to requests for comment, told the Park Board in 2017 that he took the bell. He wouldn't reveal where it went but said it was "in a better place where it would be appreciated," she said.

Ward presented the items to Minnetonka High on behalf of American Legion Post 1 in Minneapolis. The wheel arrived at the school in 2007, when Ward was vice commander at the Legion post, and the bell in 2014.

"The time has come for this treasure to be held in a place of reverence and respect," Ward wrote in a 2014 letter to the high school. "What better location than Minnetonka High School?"

It's not clear if Ward had a connection to Minnetonka or if there was a reason, beyond the school's nautical mascot, that he chose the school.

Bell used in football games

Pulscher disputed the idea that the bell and wheel weren't in a prime spot. "I feel like they were in a really great location because we have millions of visitors who go around the lakes each year," she said.

The bell, kept in the school's weight room, appears regularly at football games where it is rung when the home team scores, Getty said.

The wheel hangs in the school's atrium alongside an anchor, overlooking a blue "M" for Minnetonka on the floor.

"We see [the items] as something that we honor and respect … that our students feel are very special," Getty said.

Mike Krogan, membership director and spokesman for Legion Post 1, said he remembers when both artifacts were displayed at the Navy Rock memorial near Bde Maka Ska. They were loaned from the Department of the Navy to a local Navy Marine post, which became part of Legion Post 1 in the 1980s.

He knew the items were given to the high school and the people involved, he said, but little else.

Krogan said he got a call last November from Navy officials, who were checking on the wheel. The Navy seems fine with its current home, he said.

"The absolute truth of the matter is, it is still the property of the Navy," Krogan said.