I was missing my big brother Jim the other day when retired Metro detective Norm Ziola called to say he’d solved a mystery.
My only brother died back in December after battling heart and lung disease. We didn’t always get along — how many siblings do? — but over the years we built a cherished scrapbook of common experiences and fond memories. We laughed a lot, fought a little, and shared a bond that only brothers can know.
Now that Jim is gone, I can better appreciate how much less colorful my life would have been without him in it. Ziola knows that gray feeling all too well.
Before he retired in 1995, Ziola spent 25 years as a Las Vegas cop with the last dozen in Metro’s Homicide Bureau. He solved mysteries for a living, but it was a riddle in his personal life that eluded him for decades: Adopted in 1943 as an infant in an era when giving up a child was shrouded in secrecy, he wanted to know his mother’s identity — and especially whether he had a biological brother or sister.
Out of respect for his adoptive parents, whom he calls “two of the finest people that ever lived,” Ziola waited until after their deaths to begin seriously making inquiries about his biological parents and siblings. He was born in Kansas City, Mo., at a birthing hospital for unwed mothers run by the Catholic Charities of Chicago. Placed in an orphanage, he was adopted at six months by Margaret and Rudolph Ziola of Chicago.
“At about 5 years old, my mother explained to me that I was adopted,” the 70-year-old Ziola recalls. “She said that she couldn’t have children and that they wanted children.”
That was enough information for a boy, but as the years passed the mystery gnawed at Ziola. By chance he uncovered his birth name, “Edward Eisenhauer,” but without proof that his birth parents were deceased, he’d never learn more about his own identity.
“I looked all my life to find out what my mother’s name was,” Ziola says from his home at Topaz Lake. “It was all locked up. The records were sealed. I could never find out. I just wanted to now why she gave me up.”
As the years passed, he figured he’d probably never get to the bottom of the mystery. But when a new generation of adopted children began to ask similar questions, the rules of secrecy started to change. In 2012, he says, the Catholic Charities hospitals began to open their records. Ziola learned that his birth mother had died in 2000.
He also learned that he had a biological sister and brother. The sister declined to communicate, and he respected her wishes. When he heard nothing from the brother he’d never known existed, Ziola thought his journey of discovery was over.
But on Memorial Day 2013, his phone rang. It was a long-distance call from Michigan.
“Norm,” the stranger’s voice said. “This is Bert, your little brother.”
A brother. At last.
Even after 10 months, Ziola still chokes with emotion at the thought.
“You’ll never know the feeling that I had,” Ziola says. “I’m not often at a loss for words, but I was then. We’ve been calling and writing and so forth and so on.”
His brother’s name is Bert Stehle. He’s 64 years old and lives in Clio, Mich.
“We never knew that each other existed,” Ziola says. “We never knew we had a brother. Each one of us thought that we’d like to have a brother, but we just never had one. I went from not knowing to knowing, and from knowing to finding out my brother wanted to meet me.
“I’m getting up in years. I thought I would die before this would happen.”
Later this month in Las Vegas, after more than six decades, brothers Norm Ziola and Bert Stehle will meet in person for the first time.
With the mystery solved, a friendship a lifetime in the making can now begin.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.