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35 miles, 24 years apart, 2 brothers reunite, rejoice

Friday, June 08, 2001

By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Al Wilson stood on the porch of his Green Tree group home, hands in pockets, beaming, as a red sedan pulled in front with a 70-year-old man slouched low in the back seat.

Al Wilson, 66, gives his brother, Ed Wilson, 70, a hug after their reunion at Carol Place, an ARC Allegheny Community group home in Green Tree. The brothers were roommates at Polk Center but had lost track of each other when they were moved and hadn't seen each other in 24 years. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

For the week prior, Wilson had been dancing and singing in his slurred voice in ARC Allegheny's Carol Place residence, all in anticipation of seeing his shy brother -- retarded like himself.

Their mental limitations, the deaths of other relatives and less government sensitivity for the handicapped population than exists today all conspired to keep Al and Ed Wilson apart from one another through middle age. A 35-mile ride Tuesday from one group home to another bridged the divide.

Al, 66, hadn't seen his brother since Al was transferred in 1977 from the state's Polk Center, where Ed remained for another year or two. Once reunited after decades of separation in various living arrangements in Allegheny and Beaver counties, nonverbal Ed seemed uncomfortable with celebratory attention, but Al was overjoyed at hosting his brother for a spaghetti lunch.

"I'm a happy man," he said while hugging Christine Schopf, an ARC administrator overseeing residential programs.

She was one of many agency staff members whose help Al had sought over the years in his reunification quest, and many of them were present with cameras to record the moment when Al accomplished his goal.

"He always said, 'I'm looking for my people,' "explained Carol Liebold, an ARC community home specialist.

Al's family members -- the rest of them are now deceased -- were just names on scraps of paper in his bedroom drawer until Al's encounter May 31 with a state licensing inspector visiting his home. The Department of Public Welfare employee, Jerry Cannon, had worked at Mayview State Hospital when Ed lived there for a few years after leaving Polk.

Al Wilson looks out the front door of his home at Carol Place, waiting for his brother, Ed, to come up the walk. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

When Al presented his paper pieces of family history in seeking help from Cannon during the annual state inspection of Carol Place, Cannon recognized Ed's name and recalled that he had been sent sometime to some community living arrangement in Beaver County. A couple of telephone calls on his part located Ed at a Life Management Consultants Inc. home in Rochester.

Mary McCue, the community home supervisor at Carol Place, cried upon realizing the long-lost brother had been found. She arranged with her counterparts at Life Management Consultants to welcome Ed for a visit. Al began singing happily, which would continue for the six days until the meeting.

"Al was getting more excited by the moment," Cannon recalled of his anything but routine inspection. "He thanked me 50 times, I think."

Ultimately, it took just a Rochester to Green Tree ride to put the two men together, similar in bald, bespectacled appearance but worlds apart in personality. Energetic Al is described as mildly retarded; reserved but industrious Ed as moderately so. Al hovered over him like a mother at their lunch, bringing his coffee and buttering his bread.

Life Management Consultants representatives said Ed, who rarely speaks other than saying "yes," had never seemed curious about his family. But he was receptive when first told of Al's interest. The staff had been aware Ed had a brother somewhere, but not one with similar disabilities, and he has been content with his housemates as an adopted family.

"To be honest, a lot of time there's not family involvement. There are a lot of people who have brothers and sisters but no contact with them" for people in Ed's situation, said Marcy Antonelli, executive director of Life Management Consultants.

The officials of the two agencies and Department of Public Welfare had no answers as to why the brothers were discharged from Polk at different times to different settings in the 1970s, and with no effort made to keep them aware of one another. They said steps are taken today to prevent such familial disruptions.

"Today, we would do an entire family and social history," Schopf said. "Back then, you just got what the state gave you. Professionally, we're all a little bit more savvy about it now."

Susan Aspey, a welfare department spokeswoman, acknowledged that the reunion should never have been required in the first place. ARC's staff members acting on Al's behalf had been unsuccessful in recent years in finding any records about Ed at Polk, or anyone there who could trace what had happened to him.

"It's disconcerting that this happened, that these two individuals for 20 years did not know where each other was," Aspey said. "With the passage of time, sometimes it can be more difficult to find out former residents' whereabouts. ... We're not aware of any other case like this. We make every effort to reunite families, and keep the family together initially."

Staff members who know Al say it is unlikely he will allow himself to lose track again of his older brother, even though one of the early memories he drew upon with a smile Tuesday was of Ed bopping him on the head with a bat. Arrangements are to be made for him to visit Ed's group home next, and for Ed to spend a weekend at Carol Place.

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