A mother's secret and a reporter's journey to find his family

I can’t say Dad never questioned where he came from. He did. He imagined what it would be like to meet his mother and the sister he’d only heard stories about.

We've been following Noel on his trip trying to find out his family's history. None

Heidelberg
Heidelberg, Germany.

It was the spring of 1953 in Heidelberg, Germany. The city, spared from bombing in World War II, was home to thousands of American soldiers and the headquarters for the U.S. Army in Europe.

Annemarie Häusler was a 23-year-old employee at the U.S. Army post exchange. She was unmarried and had two children, a little girl and a one-year-old baby boy named Klaus.

Annemarie_1
Annemarie Häusler was a 23-year-old employee at the U.S. Army post exchange.

On April 9, 1953, Annemarie gave her consent for the adoption of Klaus to a U.S. Army Master Sergeant and his wife, Daniel and Lois Brennan.

Klaus Häusler took the name Terrence Lee Brennan and came to America with his new family on the S.S. United States.

“Both my parents had to write a letter explaining why they wanted a child and why they wanted me,” Terrence said. “Obviously, looking at my pictures, that would explain why they wanted me,” he laughed.

Terry, as his parents would call him, grew up as an Army brat and moved all over the country. In November 1975, he married his college sweetheart, Laura Nevins.

They had their first child, Colin, in 1986. Their second son, Noel, was born two years later. He grew up to be a Denver TV reporter who had a lot of questions about his family history.

I convinced my Dad to talk to me about his past one September afternoon at his home in Golden.

“I mean, you knew I was adopted forever,” Dad said to me. “Did you ever think about the fact that there were – you had blood relatives?”

“I did,” I responded emphatically. “I thought about that a lot.”

I can’t say Dad never questioned where he came from. He did. He imagined what it would be like to meet his mother and the sister he’d only heard stories about.

“I played it in my mind where there was just this, ‘oh my baby!’” he said, miming a big hug.

Dad also considered Annemarie might not want him to search for her.

“Annemarie didn’t want any connection with me and my mother didn’t want me pursuing this in any way, so I just kind of respected both of those things,” Dad said.

My dad’s story is my story, too.

I’ve always wondered about the Häuslers. Was Annemarie still alive? And his sister? Where is she now?

The questions I’ve had about my family all my life resurfaced when my girlfriend Kristi and I planned our trip to Europe.

Heidelberg, my dad’s birthplace, was on our list of cities to see. Dad gave me his adoption papers and his blessing to do some digging.

So I dug.

Starting to Dig

"Oh my gosh, this could actually be her."

A couple weeks before we left for Europe, I started Googling. I typed “Annemarie,” “Häusler” and “Heidelberg” into the search bar. Nothing. I scanned German adoption websites and multiple message boards.

I saw a post from a guy who was adopted from a town near Heidelberg. His adoption documents were signed by the same attorney who signed my dad’s.

I emailed him and his wife got back to me. She said they’d recently found her husband’s birth parents living in the states.

“Wow!” I thought. “That’s incredible.” She recommended my dad take a DNA test and start researching on Ancestry.com.

I joined Ancestry and immediately found an April 1954 copy of the manifest from the S.S. United States. The ship left Southampton, England on February 28 and arrived in New York four days later. My dad’s name appeared on the list, the fourth one down from the top.

“Alright!” I thought. “I found a record of Dad. I must be able to find Annemarie.”

Ship_log

A copy of the manifest from the S.S. United States, the ship Dad took to the U.S. in 1954.

I searched German birth records, death records, marriage records and divorce records. I searched manifests of ships leaving Europe in the 1950s. Annemarie Häusler wasn’t there.

I wondered if I’d reached a dead end.

I remember telling my coworker Kevin Vaughan about my research struggles. Kevin’s been a reporter longer than I’ve been alive (sorry, Kevin), so I figured he’d be able to help.

On a Tuesday, Kevin found the obituary for David Woods, a man from Mount Vernon, Ohio. Woods was born in Augsburg, Germany in 1965. His parents were listed as “Arthur and Annemarie (Hausler) Woods.”

Kevin then went to Findagrave.com, a searchable database of millions of grave records. He typed “Annemarie Woods.” Two results. He clicked on the first. A picture and obituary popped up for Annemarie Hausler Woods.

“Annemarie Woods, age 85, of Plaza Drive, Mount Vernon, passed away May 24, 2015 at Whispering Hills Care Center,” it read.

She was born in Germany on January 1, 1930. It matched the birthdate listed in my dad’s adoption papers.

“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this could actually be her,’” Kevin recalled. He showed me what he found.

I remember staring at the old woman. She had Dad’s eyes. She had his mouth.

The obituary listed the names of her five kids: Angelika, Thomas, Debbie, David and Michael. All of them lived in the United States.

The next day, I made the phone calls.

Awkward Phone Calls

"This is – this is really random but..."

“Hi, my name is a Noel Brennan,” I’d start. “I’m a reporter in Denver. This is – this is really random but, do you – do you have a couple minutes by chance?”

It was awkward. My hands were sweating. I was nervous. As a reporter, I call strangers all the time. Calling strangers I suspected were my family members... that was something new.

Cliff Ruggles answered the phone in Mount Vernon, Ohio. I asked for Debbie, the daughter of Annemarie Woods. She wasn’t there. I told him who I was and got right to the point.

“I’ve been working on a story about my father and I’ve been doing some genealogy research,” I said. “My father was adopted from Germany in Heidelberg back in 1953 and his birth mother is listed as an Annemarie Häusler.”

I told Cliff about the obituary I’d found for Annemarie. How her birthdate and birthplace matched the Annemarie in my dad’s adoption papers. Cliff told me he’d talk to his wife Debbie and her older sister, Angelika.

But, our conversation made it clear: I’d found family.

Angelika called later that day from Pittsburgh. She goes by Angie. I started my spiel.

“I’m a reporter in Denver. I’ve been doing some genealogy research…”

Angie listened. I couldn’t tell if she was crying.

“I knew you were calling about Klaus,” she said.

Angie remembered my dad and the day he left. She said she was five or six-years-old at the time. She remembered holding Klaus. Crying. Not wanting to let him go.

Angie

Dad’s sister Angie was just five-years-old when he was adopted.

Angie doesn’t know why Annemarie gave her brother up for adoption. She just knows her mother never wanted to talk about Klaus after it happened.

The family came over to America in 1955. Annemarie had another child before marrying a U.S. soldier, Arthur Woods. They had three children together.

Angie kept Klaus a secret. She never told a soul, until a reporter called out of the blue 65 years later. It was the day before her 70th birthday. Her brother called the next day.

“Hi, Angelika? This is your little brother Klaus calling to wish you a happy birthday,” Dad said. “I’m just at a loss for words right now, and I so look forward to talking to you and meeting you hopefully someday.”

I know Dad felt it. I did, too. Gaps in our family’s story were closing. I was leaving for Europe in a couple days, and there was still digging left to do.

Liters, Lederhosen, and Work

"People like you coming and asking for records about their family, it’s not that rare."

Oktoberfest1

 Kristi and me enjoying a liter of beer at Oktoberfest in Munich

Our European vacation was supposed to be about experiencing Oktoberfest in all its glory – downing liters of beer and gorging on giant pretzels in a setting where it’s socially acceptable to wear lederhosen and dirndl.

It was supposed to be about scenic bike tours through the Dutch countryside and exploring the medieval city of Bruges, Belgium.

Our two-week trip was all those things. It was also about visiting Heidelberg, my dad’s birthplace. That meant I had to play reporter. I’m eternally grateful to Kristi for putting up with me and my camera.

We stayed in the Altstadt or “old town” of Heidelberg, a short walk from the most touristy spots in the city. We did all the touristy stuff.

We rode the funicular up a steep slope to tour the Heidelberg Castle ruins. We broke a sweat during the Philosophers’ Walk, retracing steps that inspired poets over the years.

We walked the banks of the Neckar River where my dad once posed for a picture my grandparents took after they adopted him. I tried to find the exact spot where the picture was taken. I never did.

We took a short train ride to the town of Edingen just west of the city. We had to ask directions from a store clerk to find the address Angie had given me over the phone, Blumenstraße 10. It was the home where she lived with my dad and their mom, she said.

The home Kristi and I found was new, built in the last ten years. I still snapped a picture of it along with the Blumenstraße street sign.

We also visited Heidelberg City Hall. That’s where I met Timm Herre, a spokesman for the city. I wanted to learn more about my grandmother and what life was like for her.

“Life in post-war Germany in the late 40s and even early 50s was very, very hard for a lot of families,” Herre explained. “An additional mouth to feed in that time was too big a challenge for some families and that’s why they made the decision to give away a baby, which is the hardest thing you can imagine.”

Turns out Herre had heard my family’s story before.

“We had 12 to 15,000 U.S. Army soldiers living here in the city,” Herre said. “There are a lot of relationships between Americans and Heidelberg, so people like you coming and asking for records about their family, it’s not that rare.”

The only record I found in Heidelberg was Annemarie’s birth certificate. I picked it up from the city’s registry office. The document listed the names of Annemarie’s parents and an address in the Altstadt.

Ingrimstraße 7, the home where my great-grandparents lived, was only a three-minute walk from where Kristi and I stayed in Heidelberg. I snapped more pictures.

It’s strange, but touring Heidelberg, walking the city streets - felt almost like a homecoming. I was visiting the place where my family’s story began.

I left the city with more questions – questions I wanted to ask my dad’s sisters – my aunts. They were questions I’d save until we met in person.

This is part two of a series exploring how Noel Brennan discovered his family roots.

Not Your Normal Family Vacation

“Are hugs in order?"

Pittsburgh

We did our best to pretend our trip to Pittsburgh was a normal family vacation.

“It is a nice little town,” Dad said.

Dad, Mom, Colin and I stood at the top of the Duquesne Incline and took in the view of Pittsburgh. I snapped a picture.

Earlier in the day, we visited the Andy Warhol Museum. We took a drive by Heinz Field. The day was kind of a blur for me. I was still thinking about the night before. We all were.

The evening before in our hotel, I asked Dad how he was feeling – how he’s felt since he learned he had siblings living in the states.

“Every time I tell the story, it’s like reliving it for me,” Dad said. “To hear other people and see their reactions, drives home to me just what a special thing this is.”

The four of us hopped in the car and started driving to Angie’s. Debbie was going to be there, too. She’d made the drive from Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“Right! Right! Right! Turn to the right, Dad!” I yelled from the backseat. “Right here?” He asked, turning the car at the last second to make our exit.

I blame nerves for my terrible directions and Dad’s delayed reactions. I think we were all feeling it.

Colin was texting his girlfriend. Mom was just trying to keep it together.

“I know I’ll probably start crying because that’s the way I am!” she laughed.

Mom saved the tears for Angie’s front door. We all did.

“Nervous?” Dad asked me as we stepped out of the car.

“Probably feeling the same way you are,” I said.

Dad led the way, a bouquet of flowers in hand. He rang the doorbell.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if this was the wrong place?” Dad said. We all laughed.

Debbie answered the door.

“Hello!”

“You must be Debbie!”

“Yes, come in!”

Dad took a step inside.

“Are hugs in order? I’m Terry!” Dad said.

The two of them hugged as Angie came down the hallway.

“Hello sis! How are ya?” Dad said.

Angie wrapped her arms around Dad and started to cry.

“Thank you so much for being here,” Dad said.

“Oh, I’m here! I’m here,” Angie said. “I’m not going to let you go.”

Reunited_2

 The whole family together for dinner in Pittsburgh. 

I remember watching them hug and thinking of a five-year-old girl holding her baby brother. I remember thinking of all the hugs a brother and sister must have missed over 65 years.

Angie eventually let go. She had to say hello to the rest of us. Mom cried, just as she predicted.

Dad and Angie exchanged gifts. Dad framed that picture of himself as a baby standing beside the Neckar River in Heidelberg.

Angie gave my dad a Pittsburgh Steelers hat and a Terrible Towel. Dad’s been a lifelong Chicago Bears fan, but he was willing to adopt a new team that night.

Colin and I met our cousin Stephanie, her husband Teddy and their baby girl, Thea. We then did what all families do when they get together – eat, drink and catch up.

“You were a blonde when you were born,” Angie said to Dad.

Brother and sister sat next to each other and went through old pictures.

“I remember mom saying that you were going to be leaving,” Angie said. “That’s when I held you and wouldn’t let you go, and she dragged you away from me.”

“It had to be pretty traumatic,” Dad said.

I asked Angie why Annemarie never spoke of my dad over the years.

“I left it alone,” she said. “But I did keep her secret.”

Annemarie_Angie

Angie with her mother, Annemarie. 

Angie and Debbie don’t keep in touch with their two other brothers anymore, but the sisters have always been close. That’s probably why it bugged Debbie so much that Angie kept a secret. I asked her about it.

“I just figured when my mom died all bets should have been off,” Debbie said. “I just…” she continued, but her sister cut her off.

“What was that?” Angie asked from across the room. “About what?”

“It’s my turn!” Debbie laughed. “We do this all the time! I love her.” A classic sister moment. The whole room laughed.

I wondered what Annemarie would have thought had she seen us all together that night. A brother back together with one sister and introduced to another. I wish she could have seen it.

I imagine Dad never expected we’d be able to fill so many gaps in our family’s story. I’m sure Debbie and Angie never expected a reporter to call with so many questions.

“You were a lot nosy, let me tell you the truth,” Angie told me.

“I was,” I smiled.

“Yes, you were, but that’s okay.” She smiled back.

 

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