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Old Times Become New Times for This Family : Siblings Find Father After a 40-Year Separation: Former Husband and Wife Will Remarry

June 19, 1987|DAVID LARSEN | Times Staff Writer

Forty years on, when afar and asunder, parted are those who are singing today. . . .

--School song at Harrow

A long time, 40 years.

For most humans, it is the better part of a lifetime. This week, for four people, that number will signify a dramatic beginning, when after 40 years separation, a family is reunited.

The era was World War II. In St. Paul, Minn., a young man named Steven Koch had gotten to know a young woman named Muriel Vesterby, and in 1943 they moved to San Francisco and married. Late the next year Muriel Koch became pregnant. Her husband, a welder, felt there were better job opportunities back home, and they returned to Minnesota, where they lived with his mother until they became parents of a son, Bob.

Father Disappears

Marital troubles, however, were brewing. Muriel became pregnant again, the couple separated, and in 1947 she moved to live with a sister in New Orleans, where she gave birth to a daughter, Lynette.

The Kochs' divorce became final the next year, and the father disappeared. The son's only contact with him had been as an infant. The daughter had never seen him.

The decades melted into history. About a dozen years ago the daughter, now Lynette Valenzuela of the Riverside County town of Gilman Hot Springs, found herself caught up in an overwhelming obsession: "I knew I had to find my real father before he died."

It was something also weighing on the mind of her brother, Bob Koch, now living in Cypress: "My life had been like a puzzle with one piece missing. I knew I had to fill it in."

The son said their mother, perhaps understandably, was less than enthusiastic. "She didn't discourage our search," he reflected. "But at first she didn't help us a lot either."

Late last year, after a frustrating search that crisscrossed much of the United States, the siblings determined the whereabouts of their father.

And this stranger-than-fiction sequence of events followed:

- They first spoke with him by phone, then got to meet him in person.

- In turn, he expressed a wish to see his former wife again, after four decades.

- Each had re-married, each had again divorced, and both now were single and about to retire. Muriel, now living in Boulder City, Nev., said "Fine, let's get together and talk about old times."

- Sunday, after more than 40 years, Lynette and Bob will have a Father's Day chat with that newly discovered man in their lives. And on June 27, they will participate in a wedding. On that day, in a Nevada church, the man and woman who brought them into this world will once again become husband and wife.

Both the brother and the sister recall the day they learned about their father. The year was 1952, their mother by now had married Dee Thune, a serviceman subsequently stationed in Japan, and she and the children were about to leave their Norwalk home to join him.

Until that day, the children, who were 4 and 2 when their mother remarried, had assumed he was their real father.

"I was out in the yard climbing orange trees," Lynette remembered. "My mother said, 'Come in, I want to tell you a story.' Somehow, even being that young, I felt this was a story I didn't want to hear."

Bob was in his bedroom, playing with an ironing board he had turned upside down to make a ship. "In walked my mother with her best friend, Kay, and my sister," he recalled. "My mother was crying. She said she had something to tell both of us."

Muriel began reading a letter, more accurately a statement, which she had composed. What it boiled down to was that the man the children were about to live with overseas wasn't their father, after all.

"It didn't dawn on me at the time that she was talking about us," the son said. "I wanted to get back to my ship."

Lynette, on the other hand, understood. "I began crying," she said. "Somebody who I had felt was my father, wasn't."

Fast forward to 1975. Lynette joins her husband, Ross Valenzuela, on a visit to San Francisco.

"It occurred to me that since my mother and father had been married in that city, maybe he would still be there," she said. "In our motel I thumbed through the phone book, found some people named Koch, and began calling.

"I asked the ones who answered if they knew of anybody named Steven Koch, or if they had any relative in Minnesota named Larry, his brother. Everybody on the phone was nice, but nobody said yes."

On and on went a search that had no clues. "After that, I would go to libraries, check the phone books, and make the calls," Lynette said. "Whenever my husband and I went on vacation, I would go through the phone book in our room. Earlier last year, in Hawaii, I found a Lawrence Koch. I hoped it might be the brother, but it wasn't."

Bob did the same whenever he and his wife, Diane, went on vacation--looking for the needle named Koch in the phone book haystacks.

"Did you ever live in Minnesota or were you ever married to a woman named Muriel?" he would ask.

And always the litany came back: "I'm sorry, I'd like to help, but you've got the wrong person."

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