January 21, 2019
Jim Kuzowsky grew up about a half mile away from Kensington and Allegheny avenues not knowing his father’s true identity nor seeing much of his mother.
After he was born three months prematurely in 1980, his mother Debbie dropped him off at a crowded home on Boudinot Street. She “came and went, continuing to do whatever, whenever,” Kuzowsky recalled.
He was raised by grandparents until they both passed in 1993 and a cousin named Melissa Glenn, who was 13 years old. Glenn, his "Momdukes," gave her all raising him and two other children at her young age. Also chipping in was a community that ultimately, and luckily, met the “it takes a village” challenge.
“I had very little to no involvement with her,” Kuzowsky said of his mother, during an interview last week in his Port Richmond living room. “She had seven children, and I’m the oldest. There were 15 of us in that house. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. I remember sleeping on the floor before being promoted to the couch.
“My entire life, I always wondered who my father was. I asked questions, but I never got answers.”
Meanwhile, just around the corner on East Clearfield Street within months of Kuzowsky's birth, a man by the name of Dennis McGinn had recently married and purchased a home in the neighborhood he’d long known.
McGinn worked at a nearby steel mill. Concerned about stability and layoffs in an industry facing competition from Japanese companies, he submitted an application with the Philadelphia Police Department.
He joined the force in 1982, moved to Port Richmond with his second wife in 1984 and injured his right knee during a foot pursuit four years later.
“I thought it was innocuous, but I tore something. They told me I can’t go back to work and wanted to put me on pension,” he said. “I had a family. That wasn’t a good option.”
“You’re not going to get a better feeling than what I’m feeling now.” – Jim Kuzowsky
Luckily for McGinn and his family, he was offered “secondary employment” as a claims adjuster within the city’s law department. (He said he thinks he was the first police officer to be offered such a transfer, which allowed him to maintain a salary and benefits through 1996.)
From there, McGinn’s life would weave through private sector jobs, from Port Richmond to Roxborough and now Carbon County (70 miles up the Northeast Extension) and into a third marriage with four children – two of them from his current wife’s previous union.
“I knew Debbie, but don’t remember anything other than ‘Hey, how are ya doing?’” McGinn said. “I’d see her in the bar. We were friends.”
McGinn spoke last Thursday in the home that Kuzowsky lives with his wife, Kristen, 18-year-old daughter Kerri Anne and 10-year-old twins James Jr. and Kennadi.
Just months ago, this family would have been strangers to McGinn. But in September, a $199 genetic test unlocked a secret: Jim Kuzowsky was his biological son.
Yes, the answer to the paternal question that had painfully weighed on Kuzowsky for decades – as he bootstrapped his way through a challenging childhood, served as a police officer until injuries took him off the job, and committed to creating a life for his family better than the one he had – finally arrived.
“You’re not going to get a better feeling than what I’m feeling now,” said Kuzowsky, fighting back tears as best he can. “I feel complete.”
On Kuzowsky’s birth certificate, the line where the father’s name goes wasn’t blank. It listed James Russell Woody, the name that also appeared on the birth record for several of his siblings.
Woody was “popular, respected and feared, right out of the military,” as Kuzowsky vaguely remembered. Kristen shared that he likely thought he was Kuzowsky’s father, what with him apparently having handed out “baby boy” cigars in the neighborhood. As the years went by though, people started noticing the boy didn't look much like him.
Woody died in the late 1980s, when Kuzowsky was being raised by "Momdukes" and a neighborhood that looked out for him, often at the nearby J.J.'s Bar, and friends’ parents who welcomed him like their own.
Instead of spiraling into a woe-is-me existence littered with bad decisions and worse results – similar circumstances have led others down that road – he set out to create a better life.
In 1998, he graduated from the Swenson Skills Center – the Northeast Philadelphia school now known as the Swenson Arts & Technology High – and became the sole financial provider for his cousin and two younger sisters still living on Boudinot Street.
"I did my best to be a good person, but I was always crushed and hurting on the inside.” – Jim Kuzowsky
First, he did small jobs “just to pay the bills.” Then, he became a union welder. His first daughter was born in 2000, but he and her mother separated several months later.
In 2003, he not only moved from Boudinot Street to Mayfair, but he applied for the police academy and was accepted.
“It was time for me to grow up and be on my own,” he said.
That was the first of many life circumstances mirroring those of a father he wouldn’t know for another 15 years.
At the academy, he met his future wife. She was in his class and her police family “exposed me to some more normalcy outside my home,” said Kuzowsky.
It’s not an exaggeration to say they were blown away that a child who spent “eight to 10 hours in a bar environment growing up” was becoming a good man, full of character and responsibility.
Still, the uncertainty of lineage weighed on him, even after he and Kristen married in 2005 and had twins three years later.
“I was staying busy, staying positive, staying around good people,” he recalled. “When I saw how other families sit down and eat together, I didn’t know that’s how things were supposed to be.
“If I stopped working so hard, I thought I’d never get to where I wanted to be, and avoid the environment that I watched destroy so much. Keeping myself around decent people helped me be the father I wanted to be. The goal was to be what I saw in other people’s homes. I did my best to be a good person, but I was always crushed and hurting on the inside.”
As Kuzowsky finished his statement, McGinn interjected, saying those words prompted flashbacks highlighting another experience shared by his son.
“My father passed away when I was 10 years old. I was raised by a single mom with no structure either. The family dynamic was missing,” he said. “Growing up, I also steered out of trouble. I didn’t hang on corners. My brother Mike was the bad kid. I was a mama’s boy.
“I’d see families called in to sit down for dinner, but I didn’t have that. I thought that when I have kids, I’d never let them grow up without a dad. I don’t want them to miss what I missed. We didn’t have the level of dysfunction (as Kuzowsky’s), but our house was always missing a family.”
With the question still gnawing him inside in 2015, Kuzowsky continued to ask around, and took a DNA test through Ancestry.com. It offered no lineage insights, though, which was crushing.
In August of that year, he would suffer the injuries that left him unable to continue serving as a Philadelphia police officer, yet another parallel to the life of a father he didn’t yet know.
Kuzowsky said he was sitting in highway patrol car number 26 on the 3300 block of Kensington Avenue on August 20. With his partner inside a business around 1:30 p.m., another vehicle slammed into the back of the cruiser.
“The parking meter pierced the passenger-side door, so I couldn’t get out that way,” he recalled in the tone of a witness talking from a courtroom seat. “When I got out, I saw the driver side of a 2010 Ford Fusion completely crushed. The driver pleaded guilty. There was a needle in her arm. She nodded off with her foot on the pedal. There was a large amount of heroin found inside.”
He assumed he was fine, a “macho” reaction. But when his lieutenant approached him at roll call the following morning, his professional life changed for good.
“Your smile’s not the same,” he told the normally gregarious Kuzowsky. He was sent to the hospital, where he learned he’d suffered a traumatic brain injury and three crushed discs in his spinal cord.
Still wanting to get back to work, he underwent six months of physical therapy. He said the neurologist told him that he was “back to 90 percent” but still needed to pass an electromyography (EMG) nerve test to get cleared.
It wouldn't happen.
“Your days as a police officer are over,” he recalled being told in May 2018. “I worked so hard to get back, but they didn’t give me a chance. I was too much of a medical liability. That hit me hard.”
For Kuzowsky, the job was tangible proof that perseverance through a rough upbringing paid off, that he'd made it.
He'd administered "life-saving CPR on an infant" and was involved in countless arrests ranging from homicide, robbery and rape to aggravated assault and large-scale narcotics cases. He loved the job so much that he happily shares stories from his days on the force (like this, this, this and this).
Among the awards he'd received, including Officer of the Month, from his time in the 18th District and Highway Patrol Unit was an official commendation for bravery in 2006. In that case, he'd noticed a stolen vehicle in which the driver eluded capture one day earlier and pursued it in Southwest Philadelphia.
"During that chase, the offender retrieved a handgun from an ankle holster and turned aiming the weapon in your direction," read the official department commendation. "Realizing the threat was imminent and having no cover or concealment, you discharged your service weapon striking the armed assailant neutralizing the threat."
Considering himself lucky to be alive, he would be cleared in the justified shooting by both Internal Affairs and the District Attorney's Office.
Kristen, who’d left the police force after giving birth to the twins, worried about her husband moving on from the crushing news, of a depression taking hold.
(Kuzowsky is now business-management degree from Eastern Gateway Community College. The Fraternal Order of Police is covering the cost.)
As her father grappled with disappointment, Kerri Anne – Kuzowsky's oldest daughter – decided to give a 23AndMe genetic test a whirl.
Unlike the one her father tried three years earlier, Kerri Anne got an unusual hit: she was a 12.5 percent match for a man named Michael McGinn. The numbers meant that he was potentially her great uncle.
Both had opted in to allow matches to see a potential connection, so getting in touch was easy.
As she was sending a note to Michael on August 7, she received one from him. He wanted to let her know he was willing to talk.
Michael, aka Big Mike, soon called his brother Dennis. He said notifications he’d gotten in the past linked him to potential distant relatives but “this 12.5 percent is bugging me. There’s something here. I know the name. I know exactly where the (Kuzowksy family) house was.”
“What the hell does that mean to me?” Dennis recalled responding.
“I don’t know what, yet,” came the response.
Kuzowsky used to hang out with Mike McGinn’s four children after school several days a week. They were one of the neighborhood families who looked out for him.
“I’d even eat dinner there,” he said of friends who were really his unknown cousins. “It was as functional a home as I’d ever seen when I was younger.”
Soon, the connections were firing. Mike remembered Kuzowsky as “Little Jimmy.” He told Kuzowsky that he’d never dated Debbie, but that didn’t mean the possible connections had disappeared.
“I’d like to reach out to my brother Dennis,” Mike said. “If this plays out the way it’s looking like it could, I can tell you that you hit the jackpot. You won’t find a better man, father or brother than Dennis. If I was half the man that Dennis is, I’d be in a better place today.”
The conversation helped shake Kuzowsky from his professional and personal doldrums. He asked if he could send a photo, and did.
“S***, Jim, let’s not waste time taking another test,” Mike responded. “You look more like my brother than my nephew Dennis Jr.”
"When I opened the picture, my heart sunk. I was looking at me. How could this happen?" McGinn asked.
He knew then that he had another son, and that he hadn't been there for him for his 38 years on earth. Not only that, but Jim Kuzowsky's life had so many parallels to his own, including working in the same police district (the 18th) and being trained by some of his former peers, that it was downright spooky.
The son recalled the time he asked his father if he was sure he'd never met his mother.
"I wasn't right for a week. I couldn't sleep. I was racking my mind," he responded several months back. "But I still have no memory of that day or night."
To ease what little tension had come into the living room, Kuzowsky did some math based on his birthday and the timing of his premature arrival into the world.
"I have to be a St. Patrick's Day baby," he said with a hearty laugh.
From those initial conversations with Big Mike, things started falling into place rather quickly.
Mike called Dennis with the potential news, asking if he remembered the Kuzowsky family on Boudinot Street.
He did, recalling that the grandmother was a crossing guard.
When told of the match, Dennis wondered whether Mike had been fooling around with Debbie, who lived right across the street.
“I knew Debbie, but I was never with her,” Dennis recalled saying. “This is really weird.”
Meanwhile, Kuzowsky wanted to make it perfectly clear to Mike that he wasn’t looking for “any problems” or money.
“It all fell into place at that point. It wasn’t even awkward. Their personalities, mannerisms, they were the same. It was weird. Like mirror images.”
“If nothing else, I’m looking for some closure, some medical information and someone else for my kids to call ‘Pop Pop.’ If he’s interested in talking further, I’m grateful for whatever I get out of this.”
Soon, Dennis texted his son. They followed up with a phone call suggesting that he bring his family to Mike’s house to meet in person and talk.
“Sure, tell me what time and I’ll be there,” Kuzowsky said.
Arriving at Mike's home, Kuzowsky saw the FOP sticker on Dennis’ truck. Moments later, he saw his father for the first time in his life. The date was August 12, 2018. He just knew.
“It all fell into place at that point. It wasn’t even awkward,” Kristen said. “Their personalities, mannerisms, they were the same. It was weird. Like mirror images.”
“It was so comfortable. I felt it. I was blown away,” said the son.
Testing wasn’t finalized yet, though. They were told to expect a six-to-eight-week wait.
The suspense was killing them, though, so they did a cheek-swab DNA test with a three-to-five day wait for results delivered via phone call.
“’James, are you sitting down? Is this a good time to talk?’” he recalled of the conversation that changed his life forever. “’The results show with 99.99 percent certainty that Dennis McGinn is your father.’
“Obviously, I was floored," Jim Kuzowsky said. "Every day from that day forward has been better than the one before, if that’s possible.”
At Shady Maple Smorgasbord in Lancaster County in September, he met the four siblings he never knew he had – Tara, Michelle, Dennis Jr. and John – along with his new mother-in-law Roxanne, nieces and nephews.
“Going in, I was unsure. I didn’t know how welcoming they would be toward me, but they were completely warm and so welcoming, so that made it a lot easier,” a beaming Kuzowsky admitted two hours into sharing his life story. “We’ve remained in touch ever since and talk often.”
There were holiday gatherings, including Christmas Eve in Port Richmond, and a November family get-together at a fire hall in Honey Brook, Chester County. There, the father-son connection was on dance-floor display for all to see.
“My personality is outgoing. I’m told I’m too positive, that I smile too much. I love to dance,” he said, prompting one of his new siblings to say, “Dad can dance, too.”
Watching them groove through the crowd as "Cupid Shuffle," "Percolator" and "We Are Family" played, Kristen just knew.
“They have very similar rhythm,” she said. “When they were next to each other, people were just shaking their head in disbelief. It was so obvious.”
“It’s something hard that I’ll have to reconcile, having not been there raising a child. I never wanted my kids to grow up without a father like I did. The only thing we can do is follow up from here." – Dennis McGinn
Today, the family gives off no airs of anything but love and marvel.
For Kristen, the timing was miraculous. With the injuries having taken Kuzowsky’s job away, the potential for rock-bottom spiraling had been averted.
For Dennis McGinn, it was meant to be.
“Things happen for a reason. You’re living through what I lived through,” he said. “I didn’t know where this was going to go relationship-wise when all this started happening, but I knew I was here to help him through that process."
Then, he started talking about what it's like to learn you have a child who was almost 40 years old.
“It’s something hard that I’ll have to reconcile, having not been there raising a child," he shared. "I never wanted my kids to grow up without a father like I did. The only thing we can do is follow up from here.
"Anyone who knows me would say I’m reliable, dependable and if someone needed me, I’d be there. Those are the same things people are saying about my son.”
To Jim Kuzowsky, the turn of events only confirms that he’d lived a good life – when he easily could have gone a different direction.
He's grateful to know how "lucky I was to have my cousin step up and raise me as my mother and help make me into the man I've become today," but the events of the past few months have taken his life in an unexpected direction.
“It’s just all so surreal,” he said.
Debbie is still alive, though not many people in the family communicate with her. Though Kristin remembers her putting an ad in the paper to celebrate their births, she said her children have never met their grandmother.
Kuzowsky felt compelled to let her know about what the DNA test revealed, so he sent her a message via Facebook Messenger.
With his father sitting just feet away, he read it off of his smartphone.
"I'm not sure if you knew or if you even care, but my dream came true and I was fortunate enough to find out," Kuzowsky said of a message sent four months ago.
It was never answered.
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