For more than 80 years, Eileen Wagner kept a secret from her children. She thought it was the best way to protect all of them — not only the two kids she raised with her husband, but also a third child, whom she had given up for adoption in 1933 when she was a teenager.
Then, a few month ago, 99-year-old Wagner sat alone in the front window of her home in Monroe, Wisconsin, her eyes blurred by glaucoma, her legs weak from knee replacements, but her mind and memory intact. The phone rang, and Wagner picked up the call she had all but given up on.
“Hello, Mother,” the long-lost daughter, Dorien Hammann, 83, recalls saying.
Wagner said her eyes filled with tears of joy and relief to hear the voice of her baby, now a retired senior who spends most of the year living two hours away from Wagner on the other side of Wisconsin.
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“I thought this day would never come,” Wagner told Hammann.
Weeks later, the birth mother and daughter reunited in person when Hammann and her husband drove from their winter residence in Florida to visit Wagner in Monroe, just north of the Illinois border. They enjoyed their time together so much that the pair came together again on Mother’s Day, when Hammann’s half brother and sister welcomed her to the family with tears and hugs.
And when Wagner blew out the candles for her 100th birthday over Memorial Day weekend, she was surrounded, for the first time, by all three of her children.
National adoption advocates say it’s the longest span of time between adoption and reconnection they’ve heard of, despite how the Internet and attitudes about open adoptions have dramatically changed the way birth and adoption families connect today.
“What you usually hear is the tragic side, when people begin their search on their biological parents just a little bit too late,” said Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the National Council for Adoption, an adoption advocacy organization based in Washington.
Neither Wagner nor Hammann expected, in their twilight years, to find each other. But now that they have, they are determined to make the most of the time they have left.
“I almost gave up on ever finding her,” said Wagner, who added that she has thought about the baby girl she had given up every day “from the day she was born.”
“It is still so hard to believe that at my age, my birth mother is still alive,” Hammann said. “I get chills and goose bumps all at the same time when I think of this.”
More than eight decades after it happened, Wagner can recount details of the circumstances that she said led to her pregnancy.
It was 1932. Wagner, then 16, and a girlfriend were walking home from the library in De Pere, Wisconsin, the Green Bay suburb where she grew up. Just after crossing a bridge, the friends bumped into two young men. Her girlfriend knew one of them, she said. The teens walked together until the other boy suggested that he and Wagner take a shortcut through the park to get her home before her 10 p.m. curfew. She agreed, and he sexually assaulted her, she said.
Wagner, who never saw the young man again, became pregnant and hid it from her parents as long as she could. When they eventually found out, they sent her to a home in Milwaukee that took in pregnant girls planning to give up babies for adoption. For three months, with only a handful of visits from her father, Wagner cleaned, worked in the nursery and washed sheets as chores while waiting to give birth, she recalled.
“In those days, it was such an embarrassment,” Wagner said. “It was a lonesome time.”
On April 15, 1933, Wagner delivered a baby she named Beverly Ann because she thought the name was beautiful. For nearly two years, the baby was in the custody of Children’s Home & Aid Society of Wisconsin. Wagner saw her daughter again briefly in the Milwaukee County Court when the toddler was adopted by George and Dorothy Schmidt, according to a document provided by Hammann and verified by the Tribune.
The experience made such an impression on Wagner that she was inspired to go to nursing school to follow the example of the nurses who cared for her. Yet she shared her story with only one person — her husband, Richard, whom she met in nursing school and married in 1938.
“Everything is so open now, but years ago, that was taboo,” explained Wagner, who said it was difficult to hide the past from her close-knit family.
But she guarded the secret because she always worried about how its disclosure would affect each of her children.
“A couple of times, I was about to say something and I thought, ‘Well, I better well let it be left alone,’” Wagner said. “If the Lord wanted things like that, he’d take care of it for me.”
The baby, meanwhile, completed the family for the Schmidts, a civil engineer and homemaker who lived in a Milwaukee suburb. The family, which at the time Hammann was adopted also included a 3-year-old boy the Schmidts had adopted previously, lived in a three-bedroom house on three-quarters of an acre not far from the Milwaukee River, Hammann said.
Hammann has fond memories of spending days with her brother skipping stones along the river. At home, her mother and a neighbor took turns visiting over a pot of hot coffee as they prepared home-cooked dinners and baked desserts, including German stollen cake, her mother’s specialty.
From the time she and her brother were old enough to understand, the children knew they were adopted.
“I was told I was special,” Hammann recalled. “Because other people got to take what they got, but they got to choose me.”
Hammann attended two years of college, paid for by her adoptive parents, then worked in various jobs, eventually retiring as a health unit clerk at a hospital in Sheboygan. She married three times, and had three children and three grandchildren. In 1979, she married her third husband, Fred, with whom she celebrated her 37th anniversary this year.
Her adoptive father died in 1978, and her adoptive mother died two years later.
Through it all, Hammann never felt the desire to find her birth family. She was happy with her life.
“There are good stories and there are bad stories, and I never wanted to open a can of worms and spoil anything,” she said.
In the 1930s, adoptions were not culturally accepted and typically kept confidential, said Johnson of the National Council for Adoption. In the 1940s and ‘50s, adoption agencies and advocacy groups fiercely fought for laws to keep adoption records closed, citing concerns about how the parties involved would handle reunions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, research began to show that open adoptions could be positive experiences if all parties had matching expectations, Johnson said. States gradually began opening up adoption records and today, 93 to 97 percent of adoptions have an element of openness.
Once a person has a name and originating city, the Internet and modern-day services — from private investigators to confidential intermediaries — make it easier than ever for adopted and birth families to connect, Johnson said.
“There’s just really no way to ensure complete confidentiality,” he said.
It was Hammann’s daughter-in-law, Jeanette Foster, who looked up Hammann’s birth family online. Without telling Hammann, Foster, who lives in Ohio, typed the little information she remembered from the adoption document — Eileen Krug (Wagner’s maiden name), Beverly Krug, Wisconsin – into Google. Three steps later, Foster said she found an obituary for Wagner’s brother, which listed the 99-year-old living in Monroe as a survivor.
“I’m thinking, OK, this is old information. These people aren’t alive,” said Foster, who immediately dialed the phone number she found on the Internet. “This feeble, gentle, woman’s voice answered. And I asked if this was Eileen, and she said it was.”
REUNITED AFTER 80 YEARS
After her husband died in 2006 at the age of 91, Wagner lived alone in Monroe, the same community where the couple ran several companies — a sulfur bath service, a nursing home and an import business. Although she continued golfing, something she and her husband did every day up until his death, knee replacements and balance issues made it hard for her to continue after her 94th birthday.
In recent years, she’s filled her time doing puzzles, reading novels and making frequent phone calls to people mentioned in her church bulletin to wish them happy birthdays or her sympathies after a death.
When Foster’s phone call came in late April, Wagner said she at first wondered if it was a scam. But the more details Foster provided — including the name Beverly, which she had given her daughter — the more she knew the caller had to be someone familiar with the adoption. Wagner’s feelings went from doubt to excitement.
“I just wanted to know that she was OK, and she had a good life and wasn’t abused,” Wagner said. “There’s so much going on in this world these days and you’re thinking all these things could have happened.”
Foster assured the mother that the baby she had given up more than 80 years before was healthy and happy, then promised to have Hammann call for herself.
And by the time Wagner’s son, William, arrived several hours later to help his mother into bed, she was sobbing. Finally, her lifelong secret was out.
“I sat in the bed and hugged her,” said Bill Wagner, as she told him the whole story.
In phone conversations over the next several days, the reconnected mother and daughter made plans for an in-person meeting as soon as possible.
On April 25, 10 days after Hammann’s 83rd birthday, she and her husband arrived in Monroe. Wagner recalled using her walker to get closer to the window, so she could see Hammann and her husband — both also using walkers — make their way up the driveway. She immediately saw the resemblance in her daughter’s face.
For two and a half hours, the mother and daughter talked and discovered uncanny similarities. Both women had large hands. Both continued golfing past their 80th birthdays. Both preferred their hair short, in pixie cuts.
During that conversation, Hammann said she was grateful to learn of the circumstances of her birth. Hearing about Wagner’s assault explained one question that had loomed in Hammann’s life: Why was she given up? Wagner, in turn, was relieved to know that her daughter was in good hands every Christmas, when she wondered if her baby was having a nice holiday, and on her birthday, which Wagner remembered every year.
“I thanked her for giving me up,” Hammann said, “because I did have such a good home.”