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It was an image he would never forget. As Jack Strawder pulled into his ex-wife's Lakeside, Va. driveway one Sunday in 1968, he saw a car pulling away. From the back seat of that car, his daughter, 9-year-old Vicki Sue, sat waving at him.
"I thought they were going to the store, so I just waited for them to come back."
They never did.
And ever since, Jack has been looking for Vicki Sue.
Last weekend, Jack, 71, saw his daughter for the first time in 41 years.
"It was amazing," Jack said. "I just couldn't believe that I'd found her. It's been a long, hard road," Jack said. "Every time a birthday rolls around ... The pain I'd feel not knowing if she was even alive ..."
'I never stopped looking'
Vicki Sue Strawder was born on Nov. 10, 1958. It was a happy day for Jack and his wife, Zelma Jean. Four years later, a son, Michael, was born.
But several years later, the marriage was failing and the couple separated. Jack said Zelma Jean's drinking had taken its toll on their relationship. They divorced and Jack got custody of the children.
Jack was afraid for his children's safety around their mother because of her drinking. Despite his fears, a judge ordered Jack to leave the two children with their mother for a weekend.
Michael didn't want to stay with his mother and came back home with Jack. Vicki Sue stayed.
The following Sunday he went to pick up Vicki Sue and that's when he saw her waving at him from the back seat of a car. The image replayed in his mind for the next four decades.
He went back to the judge who had ordered him to leave the kids with Zelma Jean for the weekend. He went to the police, paid search services and even contacted "Unsolved Mysteries."
"Nobody could find a trace of them. They just left."
All Jack knew was that Zelma Jean took Vicki Sue and left their Lakeside home with a man named Revis Grasty.
Over the years, Jack did find a few women named Vicki Sue Strawder, but none were his daughter.
It may have seemed hopeless, but Jack said he never gave up on trying to find his daughter.
"I never stopped looking. I've been searching all this time."
$1.97 well spent
In 1990, in Virginia, Jack met and married a Taylor County woman, Peggy McCubbin. Two years later, he left Virginia and moved to Campbellsville. Still, he kept searching, and Peggy joined in the hunt.
"That was one of the first things he told me about himself, that he had a missing daughter," Peggy said.
Jack's luck changed about two weeks ago when Peggy typed in a few names in an online search service. They'd tried the names several times before, but this time Zelma Jean Grasty paid off.
Peggy discovered that Zelma Jean had in fact married Grasty, but both had died several years ago. For a $1.97 fee, Peggy got a phone number.
Though the number wasn't Vicki Sue's, it did belong to a woman who had rented an apartment to Zelma Jean and knew where Vicki Sue was now living.
Although the woman was cautious about giving out any information, Peggy said she convinced the lady to contact Vicki Sue to tell her that her father was looking for her.
Several days later, Vicki Sue called her father. Peggy answered the phone. Jack wasn't home.
"She wanted to be mad at him," Peggy said.
Vicki Sue explained that her mother had told her that Jack didn't want her and that there was no point looking for him.
"Because of all that she was told, she had some anger," Jack said.
Peggy told Vicki Sue that Jack never gave her up and that he had been searching for her since her mother took her in 1968.
After hanging up, Peggy called Jack and told him the search was over.
"My wife called me and said, 'Guess who I just talked to ... Vicki Sue.'"
Jack couldn't believe what he was hearing.
That same day, he spoke to his daughter for the first time in 41 years. A few days later, Jack traveled to Bristol, Va. where he saw his daughter for the first time since she disappeared.
"It was very emotional. I didn't recognize her at all. All I knew was that 9-year-old girl. But, actually, looking at her, it was like looking at myself."
Vicki Sue Tallman is 50 today. She is a divorced mother of one daughter and a grandmother to two.
"We just talked," Jack said of the reunion. "We did a whole lot of talking, a whole lot of hugging."
As it turns out, Grasty and Zelma Jean had moved to Bristol, about 350 miles from Lakeside.
"They were in Bristol all this time," Jack said.
Vicki Sue still lives there today. She told her father that Zelma Jean had been a good mother. She quit drinking and joined a church.
"They did a good job of raising her," Jack said.
Jack and Vicki Sue now talk on the phone every day. She's planning her first trip to Taylor County soon.
The 41-year search is over, Jack says. Now, he's got 41 years of catching up to do.
"For 41 years, I've been looking for her. She didn't realize I was even alive. Just knowing she's OK, knowing I can go there and see her anytime I want. That's a big relief."
- Staff Writer James Roberts can be reached at 465-8111 Ext. 226 or by e-mail at email@example.com. Comment on this story at www.cknj.com.