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Liesl Nielsen, KSL.com

Utah man who spent a lifetime looking for his father found him living 10 minutes away

By Liesl Nielsen, KSL.com | Posted - Feb. 11, 2020 at 12:08 p.m.



SOUTH JORDAN — As a child growing up in Panama, Juan Vasquez didn’t wonder too much about his father.

He knew his parents had met at a dance club while his dad was stationed by the United States Army in the small Central American country, but the only information his mother had about her mysterious dance partner was a first name, Stephen, and a picture. Certainly not enough to even begin a search.

The only memento Juan Vasquez had of his father was this picture of his parents, Stephen Bobowski and Etelvina Strickland. (Photo: Courtesy of Juan Vasquez)

When Vasquez was 9 years old, his mother married a civil serviceman who brought them back with him to the United States. As Vasquez grew, his father began to cross his mind with more frequency.

“Once I became a father in my early 20s, I would occasionally wonder where he was, or if he would have given me advice about being a new dad. As I got older, I thought about him more: who he was, what he did for a living, if we had similar interests and traits, or if he was even still alive,” Vasquez said.

But without a last name, finding the man would be like finding a needle in a haystack.

It was early 1995 when Vasquez moved from South Carolina to Utah on a whim after spotting a listing for a job in Salt Lake. Nearly 20 years after moving to the Beehive State, Vasquez lost his wife and suffered a heart attack.

Suddenly, knowing more about his family history and any inherited health problems became a priority. But it wasn’t until several years later that his girlfriend and children bought Vasquez a DNA kit from Lehi-based Ancestry.

“We wrote him this little letter that said, ‘We know you’re looking for something, but you just didn’t know where to look. So here’s this to help you find it.’ And I never, in a million years, thought he would actually find his dad,” said Vasquez’s girlfriend, Emily Bingham.

Five of Stephen Bobowski's six children pose for a photo in his home. From left to right: Alma Lake, Richard Bobowski, Juan Vasquez, Stephen Bobowski, Arlene Taylor and Larissa Bobowski. The missing sixth child's name is Stephen Bobowski Jr. (Photo: Courtesy of Juan Vasquez)

When Vasquez first completed the DNA test, there weren’t any “hits right off the bat,” he said — just a few distant cousins on his mother’s side. But he quickly learned he also had strong roots in Poland and Eastern Europe, a heritage he knew must have come from his father.

A few months later, his daughter asked him to log back on to his Ancestry account so she could do some detective work. When the pair finally hopped on, a first cousin with the Polish-sounding last name “Bobowski” popped up.

Vasquez immediately called Bingham over and the two began searching for a Stephen Bobowksi on Facebook. Within minutes, they found a man of that name who had served in the Army and who lived in South Jordan — just 10 minutes away from their home in West Jordan.

“We both thought this was too much of a coincidence, but we kept digging,” Vasquez said. “By Veteran’s Day morning, Emily had found his birthday, family members and a high school photo, which very closely resembled the Stephen in the picture that my mother had carried around for all of these years.”

Juan Vasquez found this picture of his father, Stephen Bobowski, in high school while doing some internet sleuthing. (Photo: Courtesy of Juan Vasquez)

When Vasquez’s mother eventually saw the picture, her eyes welled up with tears and she cried, “That’s him! That’s Juan’s father!” Vasquez recalled with a smile.

After some more internet sleuthing, Bingham found several phone numbers associated with Stephen Bobowski’s children, and Vasquez began calling. After a few missed calls, a woman named Larissa Bobowski finally answered the phone.

Vasquez slowly and carefully began asking her questions about her father and explaining his own situation, careful not to frighten her with unwelcome news. Finally, he asked her to look at the only photo he had of his father, which he had posted to his Facebook sometime before.

“I remember saying to her, ‘I think your father is my father,’” he recalled.

Juan Vasquez's sister, Alma Lake (left), his father, Stephen Bobowski (center), and his girlfriend, Emily Bingham (right), pose for a photo in the Bobowski home. (Photo: Liesl Nielsen, KSL.com)

She quickly ran and asked her daughter to help her with her Facebook. When they finally found Vasquez’s page, her daughter piped up: “Why is there a picture of grandpa on this random guy’s Facebook?”

Larissa Bobowski let her siblings and mother know soon after — all of whom were excited at the prospect of a new addition to the family after learning that Vasquez was conceived several months before the Bobowskis had met, also in Panama.

Now it was time to tell the patriarch of the family.

Juan Vasquez (center left) poses with his mother, Etelvina Strickland (left), his father, Stephen Bobowski (center right), and his father's wife, Yenia Bobowski (right). (Photo: Courtesy of Juan Vasquez)

When they sat down with Stephen Bobowski, another of his daughters, Alma Lake, asked if he remembered how fun Panama was with all the pretty girls — one of whom he dated before their mother. When he confirmed that he did, in fact, remember her, Lake slowly broke the news.

“Well, she got pregnant and didn’t tell you,” she said. “And he’s like, ‘Oh I didn’t know. Had I known, I would have married her.’”

“He was just surprised and shocked, but I think it helped that all of us were just thrilled. … I think he was worried that we would be upset or mom would be upset. But once he realized that none of us were upset, we were OK,” she added.

With their father’s blessing, the siblings soon set up a meeting for the two families.

“It couldn’t happen soon enough for me,” Vasquez said as he patted his dad’s knee for the sixth time that evening as if ensuring that his father was real and right beside him. Stephen Bobowski reached his hand around and patted Vasquez’s back, then left his arm around his shoulders.

Stephen Bobowski puts his arm around Juan Vasquez's shoulders. (Photo: Liesl Nielsen, KSL.com)

“(He’s the) nicest guy I could have ever wanted as a dad. In a way, I’m kinda glad that … my mom had never said anything because these guys wouldn’t have been here,” Vasquez said, his voice catching with emotion as he gestured to his half-siblings. “It probably would have been an easier life for me because when I first came to the States I was a non-citizen, and so just the fact that they’ve all been so welcoming to me has been wonderful.”

Vasquez always wondered what kept him in Utah for 25 years, since he never had any roots in the Beehive State.

"The strangest thing about all of this is that I have lived in West Jordan, Utah, for 25 years and never thought I had any ties to Utah, let alone that my father lived 10 minutes away and that he would have been living here with his family since 1980," he said.

Now, Vasquez feels like Buddy from the Christmas classic “Elf,” who meets his father and wants to shout it from the rooftops. Vasquez is especially delighted with all the similarities he sees between them both, including their veteran status and love for thrift shopping.

And Vasquez’s half-siblings are amazed at the pieces that had to fall into place to bring them together.

“It really is just a miracle. I feel like God or Heavenly Father … He knew the end from the beginning,” said Stephen Bobowski’s daughter, Arlene Taylor. “Everything that had to fall into place, I mean, from halfway around the world in Panama to Utah 10 minutes away from each other is literally a miracle.”

But how does Stephen Bobowski feel about all this?

“I have two boys and three girls, and I always wanted another son,” he said with a satisfied smile.

Liesl Nielsen

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