I had tried, and failed, to find the boy in the photo. Instead, he found me.
Mark Kozlak recognized himself in a 64-year-old photo published in the Star Tribune in June. He’s standing in the snow next to Janet Lee Dahl, the Minneapolis girl pictured in a discarded photo album that was rediscovered at a flea market in Southern California.
Janet died at age 10 in 1959, but her childhood was preserved in 200 photos that her mother, Gertrude, took and carefully annotated. Sometime after her mother’s death in 1997, the album was sold to a collector of vintage photos and reprinted in a book of found images. That prompted me to investigate her brief but remarkable life, and how those photos express something universal about love and loss.
I was frustrated, though, that I couldn’t figure out anything about Mark, who’s identified on a few of the images only by his first name.
Then, among the dozens of messages from readers I received after the story was published, came the voice mail. “I’m the Mark in the picture.”
A week later, I was sitting across from him at his usual table at Jax Cafe, the northeast Minneapolis restaurant that his father and uncle turned into an institution. Kozlak’s cousin now runs the place. Kozlak, who went into real estate, is 68 years old and lives in Osceola, Wis. He also mentioned he’s fighting cancer.
He brought his own albums to share. The pictures and stories of Janet Lee Dahl had transported him to his childhood, when he, his sister, Janet and an army of other neighborhood kids held parades up and down the sidewalks of Wilson Street, wearing hats fashioned out of newspaper by Janet’s mother.
He also remembered Janet falling down, though he wasn’t aware of her seizure disorder that contributed to her final, fatal fall.
As kids, “we weren’t freaked out by anybody being different,” he said.
Kozlak was 4 years old when the photo was taken in early 1955, and Janet was 6. His family moved away the next year, but he came back often, and never lost his ties to Northeast.
The revival of Janet’s memory sparked a flurry of e-mails and phone calls. Kozlak was determined to find as many of the neighbor kids as he could to honor Janet on Aug. 18, the 60th anniversary of her death.
The night before the anniversary, he poured his heart into a letter to his lost playmate. He recalled the time they played with Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy, sledding down her backyard, lying on a hillside and wishing upon the stars.
“Now you are locked in the amber of that childhood time 60 years ago today,” Kozlak wrote. “What lessons have you taught us? To face danger, pain and uncertainty cheerfully.”
Last Sunday morning, Kozlak brought his son Nick and a dog named Sunny to Sunset Memorial Cemetery. It had rained hard that morning, but the skies were clearing. Kozlak pushed a vase into the ground by Janet’s marker. Into it went a bouquet of daisies, roses and lilies. “Here you go, Janet,” he said. He tucked the card and letter into the flowers.
I asked him what was going through his head. “How improbable it was that her memory was resurrected,” he said.
James Eli Shiffer • 612 673-4116 @JamesEliShiffer