A safe found earlier this year in the storage room in the Keeneland Hall dorm at the University of Kentucky had sat unopened, possibly for decades.
By the time anyone thought to inquire about the combination, those with the information were long gone — graduated, moved to other jobs, maybe even dead.
"Everybody knew the safe was there, but nobody ever paid attention to it," said Ben Crutcher, UK's associate vice president for auxiliary services. "Nobody could remember the last time it was opened. It was at least 20 years. ... In fact, nobody had the combination to it. Nobody who works here now can ever remember it being open."
A Pinkston's Locksmith employee was called in. Good at his job, he disabled the combination quickly.
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UK staff found — to their jaw-dropping amazement —93 pieces of silver serve ware, a crystal ladle and a different era.
"It was much quicker than we thought it would be," said Marcia Shrout, associate director for residential education, who has worked with UK's residence halls since 1997. "He pops it open, and there, every shelf of this large safe had loads of silver on it."
"Nobody ever imagined that such nice silver pieces would be in there," Crutcher said.
The contents of the safe reflected an era when a "Miss Keeneland" was honored annually in the dormitory and students drank tea off of silver service. In short, it was not the era of the red Solo cup.
The safe's bounty included: three platters, two punch bowls and three ladles, three sugar and creamer sets, three coffee pot sets, a set of candle holders, a water pitcher, a percolator, an eight-piece tea set and 61 spoons.
The silver was turned over to the university's archivist, Ruth Bryan, who is just starting to work on the mysteries surrounding it.
Silver is a complicated subject. The metal comes in different grades, starting with 99.9 percent pure "fine" silver, which is considered too soft for producing most objects. Silver is combined with a metal, usually copper, when used to make objects. From there, the silver scale slides gradually down to silver plate.
Bryan is particularly interested in the silver bowl designating the "Miss Keeneland" winners. A female student in the dormitory was honored each year from 1962 to 1979. The first was Mary Ann Tobin, who went on to become Kentucky state auditor.
If the bowl went into the safe in 1979, that would indicate that the silver might have been locked up for as long as 35 years. The contents came with an itemized list that appeared to have been typed on an electric typewriter, rather than typed into a computer and then printed out.
The silver is interesting in part because of what its presence might say about the roles of women on campus in the early '60s, Bryan said.
"It really gets at the expectations of women's roles and what women's education should entail at the college level," including curfews, rules about what women could wear on campus, a whole possible raft of expectations about women's behavior and deportment in higher education.
Bryan said she wonders whether the storage of the silver signified a change in the mission of what Keeneland Hall was meant to be.
Everyone thinks they know silver when they see it, but silver valuation is quite complex. Fine-quality silver comes with marks designating the maker, in this case Sheridan. But investigating how much the silver might be worth is in its early stages, Bryan said.
"From the archive side, we're still in a wait-and-see exploration with it," Bryan said.
Once the silver has been researched, the school has a place for it in Patterson Hall, which will be reopened for the 2015-16 academic year as a "student success building:" a support zone for students who live on North Campus, Shrout said.
Before that, Bryan said, there's "so much to explore around that. Part of the challenge of archival research is needles in haystacks."
So few needles of information, she said, amid so many haystacks.