Merritt Bartlett knew that the young man’s name was George. He knew that George was a student at the University of Minnesota, that he was a good skier and that he had a girlfriend who lived in North Oaks.
He knew that George was drafted to Vietnam in 1968.
What 80-year-old Bartlett didn’t know until recently was what happened exactly to “Skip,” as friends called him.
Nor that after so many decades he would tear up recounting his serendipitous and, ultimately, satisfying effort to bring closure to a family who, it turns out, lives just miles from Bartlett’s home in Roseville.
It all began in Dinkytown, in 1967, with a classic Ansel Adams print.
“He skied with us,” Bartlett recalled earlier this week, taking in late-afternoon sun in his lushly landscaped back yard, courtesy of his gardener wife, Marilyn.
Back then, he and Marilyn owned a little ski and scuba shop near the U. Skip, who worked nearby, stopped in often.
“Skip would have a Coke and sit on our stairs and BS, I guess,” Bartlett said.
He remembers Skip as an All-American kid, “soft-spoken, well-educated, with a droll sense of humor.”
In the fall of 1967, Skip came into Bartlett’s shop carrying a signed and stamped Ansel Adams print, titled “Mount Moran, Autumn.” The photo features the majestic Grand Teton, with snow tucked into its pockets.
“It wasn’t cheap, even in those days,” Bartlett said. He doesn’t know how much Skip paid for it, but guesses it was a lot for a college kid.
“Will you store this for me?” he asked Bartlett, who said of course he would. “And then,” Bartlett said, “he left.”
Before tucking the piece away, Bartlett attached a note to the back: “Left this print in Bart’s Cafe while he was gone.”
In March 1968, Marilyn, who is retired from 3M, came across the print behind a door. She bought a mat and frame as a surprise for Skip when he returned. But he never did.
Still Bartlett held on, year after year after year. When the couple moved to Prospect Park, the print came, too. When they moved to Roseville, they packed it.
“Just in case,” Bartlett said.
Every 10 or 12 years, Bartlett made an attempt to track down the owner, but he had so little to go on in the years before the Internet. Calls to Washington, D.C., led nowhere. Nor did anything come of a “thankless” search of 20,000 U student names.
A year ago, finding Skip became all-consuming.
“I’m 80 years old,” Bartlett said, “and I’m going to die pretty soon, although not too soon. We’ve been monkeying around with this for nearly 46 years. We’ve got to get some closure.”
He sat down at his computer and printed out everything he could think of, including a list of names from the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He was pretty certain that George’s last name began with a K.
“Bingo! On the list from the Minnesota Memorial,” he said, “only one George K. came up.”
PFC George Gerald Kokosh. Was this his George?
He got back on the Internet and found a Washington-based Vietnam Veterans website with George Kokosh memorial pages. This George began his tour of duty on March 19, 1968. He died in combat less than two months later, on May 11, 1968. He was 21.
Bartlett also found remembrances from friends, including one named Richard who lived in Florida, but whose e-mail address used the phrase “uffda.” Bartlett saw that as promising.
“Ski buddy, friend @ the U,” Bartlett e-mailed him. “Please contact me if you see this.”
Minneapolis neighbor and childhood classmate Richard Boynton did contact Bartlett, telling him everything he needed to know, including the home address where George grew up with three sisters (Carol, Lauren and Jeannie) and a brother (Jim), his high school (Edison) and St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral, where Skip was active with his late father, George Sr., and where Skip’s funeral was held.
Bartlett opened his phone book. He dialed Jim Kokosh and was speechless when Jim’s mother, Mary, answered.
“I just didn’t know what to do,” said Bartlett, who never considered that Skip’s mother was still alive.
“I think I told her I had a print that belonged to her son,” he said. An understandably skeptical Jim called back. Soon after, Mary’s son-in-law, Wayne Hedalen, showed up at his door. “It went well,” Bartlett said, amused at the initial intrigue.
A week later, Mary and Jim, who live just four miles away in St. Anthony, drove to the Bartletts’ home with the high school graduation photo of Skip, an Eagle Scout and driver during the Minneapolis Aquatennial.
Jim guesses that his big brother was inspired to buy the print after a two-week family trip out West when they were kids.
No matter the reason, “she was so happy to get it,” Bartlett said of Mary, 89. And he was so happy to give it to her. “It was a relief,” he said. “It really was.”
Bartlett recently made a large donation to St. Mary’s in Skip’s memory. Mary sent Bartlett flowers at Christmastime, “to let him know I’m still thinking of him.”
“To find a man who would go to all that trouble,” Mary marvels. “Why did he do that?”
Mary has created a special space on a wall for the framed piece, along with many of Skip’s medals, including the Bronze Star and Purple Heart.
“People ask me, ‘Oh, don’t you want to sell it?’ ” Mary shakes her head.
“No, I don’t want to sell it.”