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Stephen Kowalczyk


Stephen Matthew Kowalczyk camped among grizzly bears on the Alaskan tundra and alligators in the Louisiana bayou. He dove off of an iceberg into the Arctic Ocean, worked as a dishwasher and handyman in Jerusalem, and set swimming records at a small college in Minnesota.

But when he returned from his stint with the Army in Iraq, he wanted to settle in the Bay Area, where he lived for four years while selling hanging canvas chairs on the Northern California craft fair circuit. Now his family is preparing to scatter his ashes off of the West Marin coast.

Corporal Kowalczyk was killed March 14 by small arms fire in Muqdadiya, Iraq. He was 32.

“Though he traveled widely, my brother considered himself a Northern Californian,” said Michael Kowalczyk, who lives in Woodacre.

Friends and family members described Corporal Kowalczyk as quiet but intense, a principled man who loved nature, slept under the stars as often as he could, and drove as seldom as possible. He loved reading and writing as well as surfing, hiking and mountain biking.

Corporal Kowalczyk was born in Albuquerque and grew up there and in Eugene, Ore. He attended Macalester College in St. Paul, where he was a record-setting swimmer and named team captain. He dropped out of college after his sophomore year and worked as a technician at a laboratory in Utah before moving to the Bay Area and taking a job with Sky Chair, a business owned by his sister-in-law’s family.

Corporal Kowalczyk traveled the California coast from street fair to craft fair selling the chairs, which are suspended from a ceiling. He made the trip in a company van, often sleeping atop the roof so he could look up at the stars, said Bob Anderson, the company’s owner. When Sky Chair opened a workshop in San Francisco, he sometimes slept atop the South of Market building’s roof.

When he wasn’t on the road, Corporal Kowalczyk spent his time with his brother and sister-in-law in Woodacre. Because he didn’t like to drive, his daily routine involved hitching a ride to nearby Fairfax, where he’d visit a cafe, sip green tea and read the New York Times to start his day. Sarah Kowalczyk said he also loved to surf at Bolinas and hike the trails in and around the San Geronimo Valley, sometimes in the moonlight.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City had a big impact on his brother, said Michael Kowalczyk. As soon as air travel was allowed, he said, his brother flew to New York to see a friend who lived near ground zero. Then he began traveling more frequently, including a trip to the Middle East, where he visited Turkey and worked in Israel as a dishwasher and handyman. He also traveled in Europe.

His travels were filled with adventures, his brother said, including camping in Alaska and waking the next morning to find that two grizzlies had been seen circling his tent, or bicycling from Galveston, Texas, to Louisiana and being told that his campsites were frequented by alligators.

Corporal Kowalczyk decided to enlist in the Army in 2004. He shipped out on the day of the presidential election after arguing over the candidates with his brother — Corporal Kowalczyk backed President Bush, his brother John Kerry — until he almost missed his flight, his brother said.

During basic training, he was sentenced to latrine cleanup after he went on an unauthorized 10-mile run after lights-out. Even in the middle of the war in Iraq, Corporal Kowalczyk appreciated nature. E-mails to his family members talked of the star-filled skies, circling hawks and orange trees filled with fruit.

In addition to Michael, he is survived by his mother, Geraldine Kowalczyk of Boulder; brother, Duc Van Nguyen of Albuquerque; and sisters, Christine Ritter of Nashville, Katherine Kowalczyk and Carolyn Lunn, both of Boulder, and Pamela Larson of Bethel, Alaska.


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