Borrowed Time

As Bruce Wondersek was dying of cancer, he reconnected with his brother, but he remained a mystery to the Dundalk librarians -- until they saw this photograph

March 07, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun reporter

It's a likable face, the face of Bruce Wondersek. The man hated having his picture taken, but a few years ago he bothered to pose at one of those photo booths. The Dundalk man found a dark suit, a striped tie and even smiled for the camera. Wondersek sent the picture to his elderly mother in Virginia. He called her every Saturday, but it had been years since he saw her and he thought maybe she would like to see how her grown son looked. His hair was silver now, as was his mustache.

The photograph did not run with Wondersek's obituary in The Sun last month.

Karl Wondersek Jr. had supplied the information about his brother, who died at 62. Wondersek was a reclusive writer who "spent most of his time reading and writing at the North Point Library in Dundalk," the obituary read. "A frugal man, Mr. Wondersek made ends meet by working odd jobs. ... His brother discovered Mr. Wondersek's longest written work, an unpublished 300-page novel titled Irene Stoddlmeyer, among his belongings after his death."

According to his obituary, Wondersek did not have a wife or children. He is survived by two brothers and his mother, May Vivian Wondersek - all of whom once lived in Dundalk.

May Wondersek was Miss Maryland in 1937 and went on to the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, N.J., that year. She is now 89 and living in a nursing facility near Karl Wondersek's home in Staunton, Va. He broke the news to her about Bruce, but she might not have grasped all of it, which is a kind of blessing.

She still has the picture of her son, who really never left home.

At Holabird Avenue and Merritt Boulevard in Dundalk, the North Point Library is a utilitarian branch - there's no attached Starbucks or breathy atriums or post-modern art dominating the basic entrance. The well-stocked bookcases are vintage public school. And the librarians - when they are done helping you, they will help you more. If this library were a man, you would not call him handsome, but you would call him a good man.

The staff, led by manager Beth McGraw-Wagner, also read Wondersek's obit. The name did not ring a bell. We have several people who come in regularly and quietly go about their reading, she says.

"Maybe if we had a picture." McGraw-Wagner says.

The search for a picture ended at the Best Western on O'Donnell Street, where Karl Wondersek and his wife, Sue, spent the week taking care of details familiar to anyone who has lost a family member. They drove from Virginia to Dundalk, a homecoming of sorts for Karl.

A day before picking up his brother's remains, he and his wife burrowed through the boxes Bruce stockpiled in his apartment. He found story outlines, rejection letters from book publishers, family photographs and letters, receipts (for everything) and 3-by-5-inch index cards full of Bruce's small handwriting. The man researched everything. He was a perennial student, his brother says.

Until this year, Karl had not seen Bruce in more than five years. Before growing apart, they grew up together in the 1940s and 1950s in their home off Liberty Parkway. Their parents, Karl Sr. and May Wondersek, had three boys - Karl Jr., Bruce and Richard. Their father worked at Bethlehem Steel. Mom, the beauty queen, was a homemaker. The family vacationed at Ocean City and Sea Isle City, N.J. Karl and Bruce were best friends.

At 17, Karl left for college in Ohio. He settled in Virginia, raised a family and worked for DuPont for 37 years. Richard lived in Baltimore until moving to Kansas a decade ago.

The middle brother, Bruce, stayed home. He graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in English. In the 1970s, Bruce worked nine years at Bethlehem Steel as a crane operator. Then, it was a life of odd jobs and a life spent at a public library. All the while, he lived at home with his parents. Their father died in 1986. Five years later, their mother moved to Virginia. Bruce stayed on at the apartment.

"He was pretty much a loner," Karl says. "He just wanted to be buried in his books."

Although Bruce was the best man at Karl's wedding 42 years ago (and his daughter's godparent), the two brothers drifted apart. They saw each other rarely. On the phone, Karl would nag Bruce about his cigarette smoking. The man rolled his own smokes - Bugler Tobacco - and smoked often. In later years, Karl would also try to nudge his brother into going to Virginia to see their mom. But his brother didn't travel.

Work was a thorny issue, too. Karl wanted Bruce to get a steady job if for no other reason than to be eligible for Social Security benefits when the time came. But his brother didn't have steady work - except briefly at a Baltimore lumber company. So, Karl helped him over the years with money.

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