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After his jaw was blown off by a landmine in 1945, Chester Caparco spent many of his remaining days dressed like Dick Tracy, wearing wide-brimmed hats and pulling his jacket collars up high to cover his cheeks.
Those who did get a look at his face knew that this was a man who had given much for his country. And after his death 20 years ago, his family continued to remember him as a stern but proud man who never complained about what he had lost.
For a time, though, what they did forget about were his war medals, the emblems of his sacrifice. In service of the things he believed in, Chester Caparco had given a very real piece of himself, and the medals were what he’d been given in exchange.
For two decades, they’d been gone, having been discarded shortly after his death. But then, somehow, Caparco’s bronze star, purple heart, and a half dozen other service medallions showed up at a Webster auction house last year.
A man bought them, and started searching for clues about the longtime Rochester resident’s life and family.
On Wednesday, the long-missing medals were finally returned to Caparco’s daughter.
A few years before his death, Chester Caparco moved from Rochester to Florida. During his final days, he didn’t stay in very good contact with his family.
So when they learned of his death in 1993, they also learned that, two months prior, he’d gotten re-married. His second wife threw the medals out after his death, she told them.
“Who in their right mind throws away service medals? A Bronze Star, a Purple Heart?” said Theresa Caparco, Caparco’s daughter. “But that was the end of it. We just let it go. Nothing that we could do.”
Theresa Caparco, 57, didn’t think much about the medals after that, choosing to remember her late father in other ways.
Sometimes, she drove in to Rochester from her home in Alabama, Genesee County, to clean the graves in her family’s section of Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. Other days, she would update websites that listed her father’s service record, adding tidbits about his surviving family members.
It was one of those websites that led Steve Ersteniuk to her. Ersteniuk, a 17-year veteran of the Rochester Fire Department, had stumbled across Caparco’s medals at an auction house in Webster in January 2012.
Though he’s a longtime collector of World War II memorabilia, Ersteniuk doesn’t usually buy war medals.
“But it struck me because it was all by itself,” he said. “It was on cardboard and felt, and looked like it was mounted. It just struck me as odd because it looked very abrupt, like it had been taken down and thrown into the sale.”
After buying them, he searched the Internet for information about Caparco’s life. Finding little more than a few service listings, he put the medals in storage until a few weeks ago, when he hopped back on the Web to see if he could find anything new. Lo and behold, one of the sites had been updated by Theresa Caparco.
Ersteniuk got in touch and shared his news, and after the shock subsided, he and Theresa Caparco shared a few theories on how the ostensibly discarded items could have ended up back in the Rochester area so many years later.
When they met on Wednesday, Theresa Caparco wept at the tangible link to her late father.
“I have something of my father that we, the family, thought was gone forever,” she said. “He paid dearly for our freedom.”
Born in 1922, Chester Caparco attended Madison High School and was employed at Willsea Works before enlisting in the Army.
Stationed in Luzon, in the Philippines, he and several other soldiers were filling canteens for the unit when one of them tripped a mine. Three soldiers were killed and Caparco lost half of his face, from the nose down.
After reconstructive surgeries that spanned years, Caparco returned to Rochester, where he met his future wife, Eleanor. She saw through his destroyed facial features and fell in love with the man beneath.
“It was hard for him to eat. He had his whole jaw shot off and he had all that plastic surgery,” said Eleanor Caparco, 92, of Chili. “But he got along well with people. He didn’t take a back seat for anybody.”
He became a father figure to his wife’s three children, and was soon shocked to find that she was pregnant. Due to all the medication he’d been given during surgeries, doctors had told him that they didn’t think he’d ever be able to father a child.
“It was like getting a vasectomy and then finding out your wife is pregnant — what are you going to think?” said Theresa Caparco, who was born several months later. “But by the time I was 10, my father had no qualms, because I am the spitting image of his grandmother. People can’t get over how much I look like her.”
Caparco quickly grew to adore his little daughter, and would often take her to the bar that he owned on West Avenue. Theresa Caparco would pull dimes out of the register to play a bowling game that was along the wall while her father looked on.
During the summer, he’d take the family out on Sodus Bay on his 35-foot cabin cruiser.
“We’d go up and down the canals, and he would lift me up and I would steer the boat,” said Theresa Caparco.
Later, he taught his daughter how to shoot, and the two started making regular trips to the range when she was 10 years old. He really had wanted a son, quips Theresa Caparco, which is why he took her on outings that some deemed more fit for a boy.
But through it all, he never much talked about his time in the service. That was something he left in the past, preferring to create new memories with his daughter.
For a time, those memories were all Theresa Caparco had left of him. Now, she has a little bit more.