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CTR ring grows into symbol of LDS culture

Published: Saturday, May 31 1997 12:00 a.m. MDT

Mormon children for a generation have worn a cheap little ring with a three-letter reminder to always "choose the right."

C-T-R. Choose The Right. Nice idea.

Norma Nichols and Ruth Clinger were members of a small committee of women who thought so in 1970 when the idea for CTR rings was born. But today, the two octogenarians are frankly amazed."We had no idea," says Clinger, "it would turn into what it's become."

What it's become - this simple reminder to children to make good choices - is an enduring piece of Mormon culture, a symbolic statement of belief for young and old, and a jeweler's dream.

"As I see teenagers wearing a CTR ring I feel comfortable around them. I feel they are young people that are making a statement about their values," said Patricia Pinegar, general president of the Primary, the children's auxiliary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"It's like I would trust those young people more than I would some other," she said.

In the beginning, the adjustable rings, with silver lettering on a green shield, were handed out to Primary children at age 6 as part of a two-year CTR class curriculum. Today, the 55-cent rings are given to 4-year-olds and the CTR courses, taught each Sunday, run through age 7.

"The purpose of the Primary is to teach the children the gospel of Jesus Christ and how to live it," Pinegar said, and the rings serve as a kind of string-around-the-finger reminder. "I am certain that children learn quicker and retain more than we can ever imagine."

At the least, it is clear from the CTR ring's 27-year history that large numbers of Mormon children retain a fondness for the rings as adults. And they are willing to pay dearly for far-fancier versions made of sterling silver or 14-karat gold by companies that pay the church a royalty for use of its CTR trademark.

Mike Leatham and Randy Edmunds are co-owners of Ring Masters Inc., a 10-year-old Ogden firm that last year made Inc. magazine's list of the 500 fastest-growing companies, largely on the crest of the CTR ring craze.

With $2.5 million in sales last year, nearly half of Ring Masters' business is CTR-related, Edmunds said.

In addition to the almost 400,000 rings a year it has manufactured in the Philippines for the Primary, Ring Masters offers a commercial line of CTR rings in nearly 40 languages, from Hebrew to Hmong - a nifty tapping of the huge Mormon missionary market.

A gold CTR signet ring, the "Sampson," is the company's most expensive at $449.95. But custom-made CTR rings, like one Leatham had mounted with a half-karat diamond for a Primary teacher in Colorado, can cost more.

"We've even got a glow-in-the-dark ring for those late nights," quipped Leatham, who believes most adults wear CTR rings less as a behavior modifier than as "a show of commitment" to the faith.

There are exceptions, though, that prove the rings sufficiently popular to be parodied. For example, Leatham has sold CTR rings to bikers, one of whom told him CTR stands for "Corrupt The Righteous." Another customer's definition: "Catholics Totally Rule."

And among some gays in Utah, the current camp is a CTR ring on the left pinky.

Karen Kilpatrick, a junior at Utah State University preparing to serve a Mormon mission, has worn a sterling silver CTR ring for five years simply because "it looks good on my hand."

She and other Utah coeds say the rings are not foolproof identifiers, however. That's because some non-Mormon males wear them for easier entry into the college dating scene.

Kilpatrick's mother, Nancy, would never have worn a CTR ring before a friend bought her one with cyrillic letters just as her eldest son, Don, was departing on a church mission to Ukraine.

"It meant a lot to me because I was missing him," she said. "It was kind of a tie."

Whatever the basis of their popularity, CTR rings fit a pattern common to much of the material culture of American religion, said Colleen McDannell, who holds the Sterling McMurrin Chair of Religious Studies at the University of Utah.

"It's like Halloween. Things start out for kids and they become co-opted by adults," she said.

For McDannell, CTR rings are akin to the cross given emphasis by many Christian churches, a material reminder of religious commitment that can also double as "a fashion item." Such tangibles play an important role in religious life, she said.

"Christians use goods . . . to tell themselves and the world around them who they are," McDannell wrote in her 1995 book, "Material Christianity," published by Yale University Press. "While some Christians accomplish the same thing through the exchange of ideas, many prefer to interact with visual and sensual symbols."

That idea was behind the original CTR ring, which came from a Primary curriculum committee chaired by Nichols, now 87. "I felt that one of the visual aids should be something to remind each child to always remember to choose the right," she said.

Clinger, 83, also served on the committee and is thrilled by all the CTR rings she sees.

"In fact, it's given as an engagement ring," she said. "Can you think of anything more appropriate for an engagement ring than `Choose The Right'?"

When her grandchildren turn 8, Mrs. Clinger gives them a gold or silver CTR ring to replace their silver-coated copper Primary issue. Two years ago, she said, one of those gifts graced the finger of Melody Clinger, a red-haired Miss Sacramento competing in the Miss California pageant.

"The chairman of the (pageant) committee looked at that ring and asked her, `What does C-T-R stand for?' "

Clinger's granddaughter didn't hesitate.

"It stands for Choose The Redhead."

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