Take a look around at everyone sharing laughs, drinks and conversation on any given Friday night at Ballard’s bar inside West BadenSprings Hotel. Everyone’s got a different reason for meeting up; a different reason for cheers-ing when they clink glasses together.
On the surface, Steve Wagner and Kelly Barron blend in like everyone else. A father and daughter chatting at the bar over a couple rounds of lemon drop martinis. But safe to say, few have been on such an extraordinary path to meeting up quite like Steve and Kelly have.
Two years ago, Kelly had never known her biological father. And Steve was unaware he had a daughter living almost 1,000 miles away. That all changed with a pair of well-timed Ancestry.com DNA tests, and a subsequent series of reunions at West Baden Springs Hotel between a long-lost father and daughter.
Here’s where it all started: a couple years ago for Steve’s birthday, his wife Sheri bought him an Ancestry.com DNA kit. He’d always talked about being of German descent and they wanted to see what the ethnicity results turned up.
A few weeks later the results packet showed up in his mailbox, with something Steve wasn’t expecting.
“When I opened them up, I said, there was a picture of Kelly and it said ‘parent-child relationship,’” Steve says. And immediately, Sheri could spot the resemblance between the two. “Sheri looked at her and said, ‘You can tell by looking at her that she’s yours.’”
“A daughter, a grandson with the click of a mouse,” Steve marvels, as he also learned Kelly has a child of her own.
Kelly’s contact info was included, so Steve decided to reach out and send a message. Down in Florida, Kelly’s phone dinged with a couple messages: one from Ancestry.com telling her she had a family match; and the other from Steve, the match himself.
“I was in the grocery store at the time and I was like, ‘Well … that’s interesting,” Kelly recalls with a laugh. “Let me grab a bottle of wine and put that in the cart. Let me grab two just in case, and go home and process that.”
The initial news was a little jarring, because after Steve’s initial email to Kelly, she blocked him by accident. He worried. But she had merely hit a wrong button without realizing.
“I wrote back and said I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m sorry.’ My hands were probably very shaky,” says Kelly, who had serendipitously used the same genealogy service to get her DNA results just a few months earlier since she was curious about her biological history.
Even though she was born and raised in Florida, Kelly did have some Midwestern roots since her adopted mother and grandparents were from Louisville. Visits to Churchill Downs were a big thing when Kelly would visit Louisville growing up. “And never realized I really was tied to this area,” she says.
A couple months after getting the DNA results, they reunited in person for the first time when Steve made the trip from southern Indiana down to Florida. Kelly made her first trip up to Indiana to visit Steve on Easter weekend last year. She visited Indiana three more times the rest of 2018, and Kelly and Steve have made it a tradition to stop by French Lick Resort during their little reunions.
Steve and Kelly are certainly making up for lost time — they even had an “It’s a Girl!” party where they pretended Kelly was a baby and had a cake made for her. (“I’m the oldest person ever to have a baby shower,” Kelly likes to joke.)
For their most recent reunion right before Christmas, they strolled around the resort to see all the Christmas decorations and Kelly made a stop to see the carriage horse (remember that Louisville/Churchill Downs horse adoration). Kelly’s son had never seen snow before growing up in the deep South, so they had hoped to make a stop at Paoli Peaks for snow tubing but mild weather placed a wrinkle in that plan.
But lemon drop martinis at Ballard’s bar are always a solid backup plan.
That’s become Steve and Kelly’s special little thing at West Baden, the lemon drop martinis. Right after Steve first found out about Kelly a few years ago, he and Sheri came to West Baden Springs Hotel to meet up with a good friend who is adopted as Steve had a lot of questions about reconnecting with a daughter after all this time. But as they shared lemon drop martinis at the bar, Steve’s friend assured him that reconnecting would be a good thing.
That’s how the lemon drop martini custom was born. A round of lemon drops to celebrate that first reunion they had in Indiana almost a year ago. Another round to celebrate every time Kelly comes back to Indiana to catch up with Steve.
“Definitely a new tradition,” Kelly says.
And a hearty cheers to happy surprises.