He's Been Reuniting Families for Years; Now It's His Turn
Dec. 16, 1995
RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) _ As a minister with the Salvation Army, Capt. Arnold Hassler has been helping patch up broken families for 14 years. This Christmas, he'd like to reunite his own.
His two sisters may not even know Hassler exists. But then Hassler, 50, didn't know about them _ or his birth mother and brother _ until October.
Adopted at 5 as an orphan, he got a letter Oct. 16 from a woman who turned out to be a second cousin.
A phone call led Hassler to his mother, brother and ``dozens of cousins'' in Illinois, many of whom had been looking for their missing relatives for years.
``It was one of the most exciting things in my life, next to finding my wife and having two great kids,'' he said in an interview.
His cousin's original message, he said, was a shocker:
``If you were born in Decatur, Ill., on Aug. 29, 1945, you have a family that's been looking for you for 45 years,'' she wrote.
``As it happens, I was the only male born on Aug. 29 in Decatur, Ill.,'' Hassler said. ``It's just one of those wild things.''
The last time Hassler saw his mother, he was 4 and she was going out for groceries. It was 1949.
His father, Roy Lester Keeling, had only recently started a 25-year sentence for check forgery. ``That's what started the family downhill,'' Hassler said.
A relative apparently complained to child welfare authorities that the four youngsters were being neglected in their farm home.
``They came and took us away,'' Hassler said. ``My mom came back home and we were gone. ... She didn't know what happened. Nobody would say anything to her.''
The children were put in Kemmerer Village, a Presbyterian orphanage 27 miles away in Taylorville, Ill. Then they were put up for adoption.
Arnie was adopted by Winfield Scott Hassler, a businessman, and Betty Hassler, an interior decorator, who lived in Glenview, a Chicago suburb, about 160 miles from the orphanage. Hassler lived in the Chicago area until coming to California in 1973.
His adoptive parents, no longer living, always told him to leave his past alone, he said.
After the October bombshell, Hassler took his wife and grown children to Illinois. On Oct. 25, he was reunited with his birth mother, Edna Requat, 78, brother Frank Recter, 46, and assorted aunts, uncles and cousins.
``They seemed to `remember' me very well,'' he said. ``When I got out of the car they said, `Take off your glasses.' ... I'm 50 now, balding, just like my dad was. They just stared at me. They couldn't believe it.''
To complete the family picture, the clan is searching for Dixie Lee, whose adoptive name may have been Dixie Lee Campbell and who was about a year older than Hassler, and Phyllis Jean, possibly Phyllis Jean Larsen, who was born Feb. 11, 1947. Their father died of a heart attack in 1975.
Well-meaning relatives and welfare authorities hid the children's whereabouts from their mother. She looked for them for years, making several trips to Chicago and randomly searching the streets, Hassler said she told him. In time, she remarried but basically went into seclusion on a small farm near Granite City, Ill.
``She looked, and she looked, but nobody would tell her anything,'' Hassler said. ``She fell away from the family until they found me. Now what a difference! We talk every night.''
Hassler hopes to locate court files in Taylorville, Ill., with birth and adoption records for his sisters. Frank, he learned, was a plumber who had done work at the orphanage without knowing he had lived there as a baby.
His mother ``never knew I was there, just down the road. It was quite an emotional moment for both of us,'' Hassler said.
It happens the newfound relatives also share a taste for motorcycles, preferably Harley-Davidsons.
``It's so funny, because I love to ride myself, and my family just loves bikes,'' Hassler said. ``I think it must be in the genes. Maybe we're all nuts, but we sure fit together.''