63 years later, he wonders, 'Who am I?'

July 22, 1999|By Michael Olesker

THE TELEPHONE call arrived at 11 o'clock the night of Dec. 14, 1935, at the St. Vincent Infant Home on Reisterstown Road, with a man's voice tersely declaring: "A baby has been left on your doorstep."

Then the phone went click, and the voice died away, the last human link to a child abandoned in the first days of his life. At St. Vincent, two of the nuns, Sister Celestine and Sister Louise, went to the front porch, and then the back. No child was there. They called Baltimore police, who dispatched an officer named John Fritz.

In a cornfield behind the home, in the silence of that raw night, Fritz shined his flashlight and saw movement on the ground: a baby wrapped in a blanket with two warm bottles of milk next to him. All labels had been cut from the child's clothes and the blankets, to avoid any identification. All traces of his past were gone.

"That baby was me," Bill Ey was saying yesterday.

But, nearly 64 years after the fact, that's all he knows about his beginnings -- despite years of searching, despite efforts by the nuns at St. Vincent, and police officers such as Fritz, despite all yearnings by Ey and his wife and children to know the history that preceded that haunting night in the cornfield.

"I have five children of my own," Ey said, during a break at his Rosedale Auto Service on Belair Road in Gardenville. "They'd say to me, 'Pop, what nationality are we? I'd say, 'I don't know, Polish, German. I don't know.' They'd say, 'Pop, we gotta find out what we are.' As they got older, I wanted to know, too. You get a sense of running out of time, and you think, well, where did I come from? Who am I? That's the one thing I want to know more than anything else.'"

This much he knows: The nuns at St. Vincent took him in for six months. There were inquiries about adoption from Fritz and his wife, but religious complications blocked it. Then a Baltimore couple, William and Matilda Ey, adopted him and named him Bill.

"I couldn't have asked for two better parents," Ey said. When he was "7 or 8 years old," he remembers that his adopted mother sat him down to tell him about his beginnings.

"I really didn't understand," Ey said, "but over the years, as it began to click in, I'd go over to St. Vincent's and say hello to the nuns. I went into the Marines, and I'd come home and go back to St. Vincent's. I felt I had a tie there, it was where I came from."

In his 30s, settled into family life in Overlea, "I really started to wonder who my parents were. They must have cared for me, because they left me in blankets with warm milk, and they made the phone call. It was the Depression, so maybe they didn't have means to take care of me. But I wanted to know."

He tracked down Fritz through friends in the Baltimore Police Department. It turned out that Ey and Fritz lived near each other.

"Scary, isn't it?" Ey said. "I didn't tell him who I was. I telephoned and said, 'I'm gonna tell you my name, but it won't mean anything to you.' I told him about the phone call to the orphanage in 1935, and the search in the cornfield. This is maybe 40 years later.

"I said, 'Do you remember any of this?' He said, 'Like it was yesterday. What are you doing, writing a story?' I said, 'No, I'm that baby.' He said, 'My God, come over.' I grabbed my oldest boy and said, 'Let's take a ride and see this guy, I want to thank him.'

"It turned out he was two blocks away. His wife ran out of the house and hugged me. I didn't know how to act. They told me they used to go to St. Vincent's every weekend just to see how I was doing. They couldn't have kids. They wanted to adopt me, but they weren't Catholic, so they couldn't.

"Then they went one Sunday, and I was gone. They were told a doctor had adopted me and moved me to another state. Heck, my dad worked in a shipyard and lived in Canton. Mrs. Fritz said, 'Do you know how many times we'd talk about you?' They were such nice people."

But it was the closest Ey has gotten to his beginnings. The trail grows colder with the years. Twenty years ago, he contacted the News American, which ran a large Sunday feature about him, relating his longings to find some trace of his beginnings.

Then he waited by his telephone all day and into the evening, hoping for some response. No one called. He found an old police report with intriguing details: His original name was listed as "John Field." But the "John" was for the policeman, John Fritz, who had found him. And the "Field" was for the cornfield, near what is now Reisterstown Road Plaza and the old Seton Institute.

One other item: A newspaper boy saw a "high-powered car," probably a Packard, speed away from the orphanage late that long-ago night, heading north on Reisterstown Road. What may have been carried in that car, along with its driver, were the last traces of the origins of Bill Ey's life.

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