By Mitchell Clarke
An Adelaide man’s 13-year quest across the country to find his birth father has ended in Gembrook.
Peter Dennis, who was born four months after his father’s death, recently learned that Gembrook man John Vlatko, also known as John Fleming or ‘Jack’, was his dad.
The Gazette understands Mr Vlatko was tragically killed in a tractor accident on Beenak Road 65-years-ago. He was born in a village on the island of Korcula in Croatia before he migrated to Australia in 1939.
Peter’s search began in 2007 after an overwhelming urge to know his roots and find the man who was his first father.
After a “hard slog” at a computer desk, matching DNA, searching Coronial Court records and the assistance of genuine strangers, the mystery was eventually solved.
“I have had a good and happy life – much of that rests with the wonderful people who adopted me and gave me their love and support… I love them and will always be grateful to them but I have always known a part of me was missing,” Peter said.
“There has been a deep longing to know about the two people who gave me life, who they were, where they came from and the lives they lived.
“As I have become older and my sons matured, that longing deepened.”
Remarkably, as Peter was searching for his father, his unknown cousin, Nada Vlatko from Sydney, was also searching for the same man.
Nada told the Gazette she was searching for her uncle to help her father, George, who had yearned to know what had happened to the brother he loved but hadn’t seen since December 1938.
It’s understood John regularly wrote to his family but his letters suddenly stopped in 1955. Four years later, George migrated to Australia and the search for John began.
In 2002, Nada learned that John had died in 1955 and that his partner Phyllis Foster was expecting their child.
The search eventually hit a dead end and George sadly passed away in 2014. The family vowed to continue searching.
After receiving a copy of John’s death certificate, Peter wanted to know more, and via Ancestry.com, he was put in touch with his long-lost cousin, Nada.
“I don’t believe in miracles but finding Peter is truly amazing,” Nada said.
“After all those decades of looking, so much loss, so much sadness, suddenly, this lovely man turns up – a man who is part of us but was lost.
“Now, incredibly he is found.”
The cousins have embraced each other, and Peter is set to travel to Sydney later this year to meet his newly-found Croatian family.
“I wanted a name and a place and I got those courtesy of my wonderful cousin Nada,” Peter said.
“Suddenly I have a birth identity and am part of a whole new family. The amazing thing is that they are as overwhelmed and excited by this discovery as we are.
“We feel our identities are more complete.”
Call for help
Peter will now visit Gembrook over Easter to see his father’s final resting place and to place flowers on his grave.
Still, “huge gaps” remain about his father’s life in Australia and Peter is hoping to hear from anybody who can help to paint a picture of John and Phyllis’ life in Gembrook in the early to mid-1950s.
The Gazette has been told that John served in the RAAF from 1942 to 1944 and held a range of jobs including as a timber worker and farm labourer.
At the time of his death, it’s understood he was farming at Beenak as well as doing contract work for local potato farmers with his new tractor.
He held a reputation as a hard worker and has been described as a “gun potato picker”.
“I regret not being able to get to know my first parents but now a new passion is overtaking me. I find I am hungry to know more about these people who were my first parents,” Peter explained.
“I find myself desperate to know about their lives in Gembrook, Beenak and Kinglake, the work they did, the lives they led, their characters and personalities.
“No information is too trivial.”
Peter and Nada acknowledge that 65 years have passed and sourcing information might not be possible, but they’re holding out hope that someone might remember John and Phyllis.
“Our family – mine in Adelaide and Nada’s in Sydney – will be forever grateful if you could share that information with us,” he said.
“There is so much we don’t know about each other and about John. We desperately hope the Gembrook community can help us fill in the huge gaps in our knowledge before it is too late,” Nada added.
Anyone who would like to make contact with Peter and Nada, regarding John Vlatko, can do so by contacting the Gazette.