Allentown man longs for answers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - Michael L. Osman's only link to his roots is a store-bought baby blanket, white with traces of blue and yellow and a white satin border.

He was found wrapped in the blanket 25 years ago, when, as a newborn, he was left inside an entrance to the former Allentown Hospital, now Lehigh Valley Hospital, at 17th and Chew streets.

"The person who put me at the hospital saved my life," said Osman. Perhaps it was his birth mother, he said. Perhaps it was her friend.

Whoever it was, Osman wants to know his true identity, why he was abandoned at the hospital in the wee hours of June 12, 1977, and if he inherited any health risks.

All he can go on are the events of the day he was found.

On that Sunday, part-time hospital clerk Michael E. Nagel left his desk to go outside to smoke a cigar. He opened the first set of double doors leading to 17th Street when something caught his eye.

There on the floor by a pay phone in an otherwise empty entryway was an infant wrapped in a blanket. The infant didn't cry, but his movements told Nagel he was real. It was 3:10 a.m.

Nagel, then 22, didn't pick up the baby or look around for the mother. His first instinct was to get a nurse.

Nurses were already on their way, having been informed just seconds earlier by Allentown Patrolman Donald Layton, who spotted the bundle when he entered the hospital with an ambulance crew.

'John Eric Doe'

Nurses took the infant into the emergency room, where doctors examined him and named him "John Eric Doe." He appeared healthy, except for a few bruises. He was 1 to 1 1/2 weeks old, weighed 7 pounds and measured 20 inches long.

Doctors doubted that the infant was born in a hospital, because he still had evidence of the fatty substance that covers a baby's skin at birth. Also, his umbilical cord was cut closer to his navel than was common in hospitals.

Police questioned Nagel and Layton and searched hospital bathrooms and surrounding blocks. Perhaps the mother or father had put the baby down momentarily to use the bathroom or move the car.

No parent surfaced.

Police checked other area hospitals and doctors for a woman who had recently given birth. Three dark hairs were recovered from the baby blanket, but without a potential mother or father, authorities could not test the hairs for a match.

Betty Ann Diehl, the 38-year-old head nurse in pediatrics at Allentown Hospital, was dumbfounded. Who could have abandoned such a cute baby?

The next day, the city's former afternoon newspaper, The Evening Chronicle, ran a front-page story and two photographs about the "unexpected guest" left on the hospital's doorstep.

Lenny Osman, an auto mechanic in Ironton, read the story with particular interest because he and his wife, Wanda, wanted to adopt. The couple had tried for seven years to have a child of their own.

"Here's a baby that was abandoned," he told his wife. "Oh, we won't have a chance," she replied. "Too many people will want him."

The next day, however, a caseworker for Lehigh County Children & Youth Services called the Osmans to see if they would like custody of John Eric Doe with the intent of adopting him. Interest in the baby was keen, but Wanda and Lenny Osman had proved themselves good parents with foster children, and the caseworker knew they wanted to adopt.

Jumping at chance

The Osmans jumped at the chance to raise a newborn as their own.

They gave him the first name Michael, not realizing it was the name of one of the men who had found him, and the middle name Leonard, after his adoptive father.

As much as the Osmans wanted a family, it was not easy financially. They had lost a home on Allentown's Oak Street to a gas explosion almost a year earlier, in August 1976. And, although the county gave them money to feed and clothe their foster children, they incurred an unexpected expense when, months after bringing Michael home, Wanda became pregnant.

To help make ends meet, Wanda worked part time as a nurse's aide. Still, in half a duplex in Ironton, the Osmans tried to provide a happy home for sons Michael and Jason and the two to four foster children living with them at any one time.

"We did a little of everything," Wanda said. "We took them to parks, picnics. Five children went one year to Disney World."

It wasn't long, though, before Michael stood out among the Osmans. Physically, he outgrew other family members. Behaviorally, he seemed more inquisitive.

By the time he was 2, he had figured out that the kitchen stools were held together by screws.

Finding out

Michael remembers he was 17 when he found out he was adopted. His parents showed him the front-page story about the baby left at Allentown Hospital.

"It came out of the blue, as I was thinking about college," he said. "I cried. It was weird. The person you had been with for 17 years became a stranger, not a blood relative."

The Osmans asked Michael if he wanted to try to find his biological parents, but Michael was content with the way things were.

Learning that he was adopted cleared up a few things for him, like why he was taller and slightly darker-skinned than his parents and siblings. Now more than 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he towers over everyone but Lenny, who is 6-foot-1.

He showed a greater interest in sports, winning football and wrestling awards and being offered college scholarships. After graduation from Parkland High School in 1996, he joined the Marines.

Yet Michael appreciated being an Osman, too.

"They did something courageous," he said.

Looking back, he recalled Lenny's pride at Michael's performance as a defensive end on Parkland's football team in his first big game against Liberty High School. "Dad said, 'Every other play, it's your name!'"

He recalled laundry baskets filled with Easter candy that Wanda would prepare for each of the children every year. And how both drove "all the way to South Carolina" to see him graduate from boot camp at Parris Island.

'My parents'

Although Michael now lives on his own, he stays close to the only parents he's known.

"They are my parents, no matter what," he said.

But since Christmas, with a best friend's son losing a battle to cancer, Michael increasingly has become concerned about the health risks he might have inherited.

When he walks the streets of Allentown, when a friend says cancer runs in his family, when he sees someone who looks like him, Michael wishes he knew something about his blood relatives.

"I wonder if my mother walked the same footsteps I'm walking today. How far did she live [from me]? Was she in and out of town?" he said. "I wonder about heart disease. ... I don't know if I'm Irish or Italian."

Michael seeks no retribution. He works full-time at a car dealership and is grateful for the love and support the Osmans gave him. It's just that lately, while planning for his future, Michael has become obsessed with his past.

He framed the original Evening Chronicle front page that Wanda had saved from the day he was found and hung it by the front door of his Allentown apartment. He once tried calling the people named in the article, but didn't get anywhere.

Not sure how to begin a search for his birth parents this year, Michael called the newspaper for help.

"How can someone hide a baby and no one know?" he said. "I'd eventually say something."

Layton, the Allentown police officer involved in finding baby Doe, had died in 1999. The Morning Call found Diehl, the nurse photographed holding the baby, and Nagel, the former hospital clerk. Both had remained in the area. Nearly 25 years after they first met, they reunited May 18 at the newspaper.

Questions

Nervous and unable to sleep the night before, Michael greeted Diehl with a hug and started asking questions right away.

"What went through your mind that day?" he asked Diehl, now retired and married to Richard Rothrock of Bath, Pa.

"I couldn't believe that anyone would do that," she replied.

Rothrock, who spent 27 years caring for babies and supervising other nurses in the city's largest pediatric unit before leaving in 1986, did not remember much about the news-making event.

"I know you were cute and everyone liked you," she said, gazing at the photo of the baby with a crop of dark hair. "A few [staffers] wanted to adopt you."

"Was there an intense interrogation at the hospital?" Michael continued.

"I think so," Rothrock said.

When the retired nurse's eyes welled up with tears remembering the babies she cared for and the profession she loved, Wanda hugged her.

Nagel, now a volunteer with Cetronia Ambulance Corps and development officer at Northampton Community College, greeted Michael with a hearty handshake, eager to see what the "baby" looked like now.

"You were only this big last time I saw you," Nagel said, holding his hands a foot apart.

"What was your first response?" Michael asked.

"Incredulous," Nagel said. "It was not commonplace."

Nagel presumed Michael's birth mother did not have the wherewithal to care for a child but was familiar with area hospitals. She picked the largest hospital at the time, he said, and left the baby in a safe place.

Wanda said another theory about Michael's biological mother was that she was a young girl passing through town with a circus or carnival who couldn't take care of a child.

"Oh yeah, like I'm the son of a clown," Michael said, amused by the thought.

"She had to be intelligent," he said on a more serious note. "I think this was planned."

Michael's quest to find his birth mother will be difficult but not impossible, said Marri Rillera, registrar for the International Soundex Reunion Registry in Nevada, the nation's largest registry of people seeking to reunite with blood relatives.

"We have people who have been abandoned and had reunions," she said. Generally, it takes the abandoned person and the birth mother or father to register.

Rillera recalled a Pennsylvania case involving world champion boxer Matthew Saad Muhammad. For 23 years, Muhammad knew only that he had been abandoned on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia at age 4 or 5. After years of searching, he offered a $10,000 reward and learned in 1982 that his real name was Maxwell Antonio Loach, his mother had died and his aunt had instructed one of his two brothers to leave him on the parkway.

Most adoptees can get court permission to at least learn their ethnic heritage and family medical history. Michael's file wouldn't have that information.

In Michael's favor, the statute of limitations has run out for authorities to file charges of abandonment or endangering the welfare of a child. So, if his mother came forward, she would not face charges.

Complicating Michael's search is the fact that a file on "John Eric Doe" no longer exists with the police or the hospital. His birth certificate is dated June 5, the approximate date of birth, not necessarily the day he was born.

Practice increasing

In recent years, the number of babies abandoned in hospitals or "discarded" in public places has grown. Blaming much of the problem on poverty and drug use, a 1998 report commissioned by the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services counted 30,905 abandoned or discarded babies in 1998, a 43 percent increase over the 21,665 in 1991.

Growing, too, are state laws protecting mothers who leave unharmed infants at havens, such as hospitals. Thirty-five states have offered such protection since Texas did in 1999. Many more, including Pennsylvania, have pending legislation.

Wanda said she and her husband understand and support Michael's need to find his birth mother or information about his past."If I was in his shoes, I'd want to know, too," she said. "I just hate to see his heart broke" if he doesn't find the answers.

"Sure, it's going to bother me" if no one comes forward, Michael said. But he's not banking on the person being his birth mother. He assumes she would have found him by now if she wanted to. "I think it will be someone else who knows," he said.

"Somebody in this world knows about this," Wanda added. "They have to."

Ann Wlazelek is a reporter for The Morning Call, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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