Couple Finds Happiness Is All In The Family

Posted: October 02, 1988

A house with no child in it is a house with nothing in it.

Welsh proverb

Theirs is a story of the joys of family life, a life in which 25 children - that's right, 25 - hold center stage.

It's a story that begins in February 1959, when he was 22 and she was 19.

Eleven days after they met, Marcia and Louis Siegel were married.

Within 13 months, they had their first child, Shellie.

She would be the first of seven biological children. And, as if they weren't enough to keep the couple busy, the Siegels went out and adopted 12 more, bringing the total to 19 - 10 boys and 9 girls ranging in age from 14 to 28. One of their adopted daughters was later killed.

Eight of the children, including Shellie, now live on their own, and have provided the Siegels with seven grandchildren, whose ages range from 9 years to 9 months.

And they all call the Siegels' house in Lansdowne home.

To say that things get a little chaotic at times at the Siegels' would be to put it mildly.

At a recent family gathering, 11 of the Siegel children and some of their kids gathered in the kitchen - biological and adopted siblings melting into a loud, gregarious, joking group that obviously enjoys the clamor.

How do you feed that many people?

Take a peek into the kitchen. The table is awesome. It resembles a board room table, all 18 feet of it stretching the length of the room, 22 chairs arranged around it.

Covered with a plastic child-proof and spill-proof coating, the table serves as the family gathering place.

The room is crowded, everyone moving, all talking at once as they munch on their favorite after-dinner snack, chocolate chip cookies.

Louis Siegel sits at the head of the table, smoking a cigar.

He is listening. He is smiling. He is content.

"Some people like to hear one person play a musical instrument, some prefer a two-piece band, and we enjoy a symphony orchestra. . . . While to some people it may be noise, to us it's beautiful music. I just enjoy sitting back and listening," he says, taking a puff on the cigar.

His wife, Marcia, is holding her youngest grandchild and laughing with him, their voices somehow audible over the clamor.

It's a typical Sunday night in the Siegel home.

"Those are my bonuses," Louis says over the sounds of his symphony, pointing to 5-year-old blond twin boys laughing and running through the crowd.

Ask Marcia why they adopted so many, and her answer is quick.

"Well, look around you. I think that's the answer in itself. It's not just one thing or one person. There are so many different people with so many different interactions. You have to enjoy it," she says. "It's like being at a party with all these different people to share your feelings with."

The Siegel children have grown up in a home where cooking for 20 is the norm, laundry is "fend for yourself," and household chores are assigned on an erasable board near the kitchen door.

They have shared the home's 10 bedrooms, sleeping in triple bunks, girls on the third floor, boys on the second floor and in basement bedrooms.

In the living room, couches line the walls with room enough to seat at least 20, and a large-screen television sits at the focal point.

The family has a collection of 550 videocassette movies to choose from. It seems only fitting that this family has a large-screen TV, a large movie collection, a large (14-room) house and a parking area with enough room for at least 10 cars.

To chronicle the history of the Siegel family could literally take volumes. Over the years the Siegels have always attracted media attention, and the walls of the living room are covered with framed newspaper articles. One story chronicles the couple's 25th wedding anniversary, when they renewed their vows.

Shellie, 28, married, with three children of her own, was the beginning of what her father calls their "never-ending story."

Two years after Shellie's birth, Steve was born, and 11 months after that came Brenda. Harry was next, 2 years after Brenda, and Jack arrived in 1966.

Because of Marcia's difficult labor with Jack (the "Jack attacks," as she calls it), the doctors told the Siegels it would be "highly improbable" that they could have more children.

So they adopted Pam, now 18, when she was 3 weeks old. A few months later, Marcia caught the flu. She treated that flu for three months before she found out she was pregnant once again. She had Sam when she was 33.

Two years later, Michael was born. That's when Marcia decided to call it quits.

Are you keeping score?

Count the names and you should have eight children. Enough? Not yet. Louis and Marcia had always wanted twins.

A couple of years later, they saw the Inquirer's "Friday's Child" column that told about 13-year-old twins up for adoption, so they applied through the National Adoption Center in Philadelphia.

The Siegels were turned down, but they kept their name in the register, and shortly afterward were told about Becky, a 13-year-old who had been through 13 foster homes and needed a permanent family. The Siegels saw a need they could fill, and Becky soon became part of their family. She was to be the family's most difficult adoption.

It took several months for the Siegels to break down the barriers of mistrust Becky had built up over years in foster homes, but "eventually she melted in" to the family framework, Louis Siegel said.

Two years later, during a routine check with the social agency to see if there were any twins available, Louis was told of four children from the same family who needed a home: Sharon, 14, Paula, 12, Melissa, 11, and Travis, 10. Travis was blind. The Siegels decided to give it a try.

The four were to visit with the Siegels during the Passover holiday week to see if they would get along in the family.

"Initially, we were kind of nervous," said Louis, who packed six of his kids into the family's 10-passenger station wagon for the drive to Virginia to pick up their four guests.

It was a long ride back to Lansdowne, but when the group arrived at the family compound at 1:30 in the morning, Marcia Siegel had a big cake waiting for them.

By the end of the week, when the social worker from Virginia was to visit with the whole group and find out how the week had gone, several of the Siegel children had posted a sign on the door: "Quarantine: no one allowed out, and no social workers allowed in."

The four came into the fold.

(Sharon, now 23, is the mother of three. Paula, now 22, is mother of the

Siegels' youngest grandchild, Shawn, 9 months.)

Next came Eddie, in 1980, a 13-year-old from one of Becky's former foster homes. By this time, the Siegel family ranks had swelled to 14.

In 1981, Becky died in a bicycle accident. She was 17 years old.

"We were all destroyed by the death - it was so sudden," Louis said, tears in his eyes.

But ask the Siegels today how many kids they have, and they will still tell you 19.

"Nobody really dies if they're loved and remembered," said Louis.

The Siegels had seen in a published registry of children available for adoption that there was a family of six children who needed a home together. The couple applied, but when the social worker came to discuss the adoption with them, she had different news: the adoption of the six looked questionable, but there was a family of five who had already been approved for the Siegels.

"I almost swallowed my cigar when she said that," Louis recalled.

In 1981, the five moved in: Michelle, 14, Billy, 12, Darren, 10, James, 9, and Yvonne, 8.

Within about 36 months, the Siegels had adopted 11 children.

*

Although the family has always managed to get by financially, there have been rough times. In 1986, after 27 years of owning several Dunkin' Donuts franchises, Louis Siegel's business went bankrupt.

"My children are all family-oriented, and when the going got rough the older ones chipped in - not only financially, but a lot of times, emotionally. It wasn't the easiest thing to go through."

Harry, now 23 and a plumber, has helped out with fixing many a leaky faucet at the Siegel home during his seven-year career. He and Steve, Jack, Sam, James, Eddie, Brenda, Melissa, Michelle and Michael still live at home.

Steve, 26, completed cooking school a year ago, and in between his work as a chef for a Philadelphia bakery, he cooks meals for the family three or four times a week. Brenda, 25, a beautician who will marry this month, provides the family haircutting.

Marcia opened a thrift shop in Clifton Heights the same year the franchises

went under to help with the finances, while Louis got more involved with the Clifton Heights Lions Club, an activity that helped him through the difficult period.

"When you spend a lot of your time being concerned with other people, you forget that you have problems. . . . I won't say I didn't worry, but my personal worries were dwarfed by my activities at the Lions Club," he said.

Louis recently started working as a fund-raiser for the March of Dimes, based in Folsom, a job he says he enjoys so much that "I'm almost ashamed to collect a paycheck."

The money raised goes toward the fight to prevent birth defects. It is a natural outlet for him. "My love of children makes my involvement with them personal and very special," he said.

As social workers tell it, the Siegels are a sort of phenomenon in today's world of cut-throat executives racing to the top of the corporate ladder with no time to think of children, let alone several.

Today, society leans more toward the trend that "women shouldn't want to stay home. Don't have any more than one child, and even that's a pain in the neck. . . . Go out and make big bucks," is the message women get these days, according to Temple University associate professor Happy Fernandez, who has done a lot of research and writing on child and family issues.

Many people don't sit back and think about the fact that "I'm going to live for 70 to 80 years, for heaven's sake, I can take a little time" to have some kids, Fernandez said.

Historically, however, 12 children in a family was commonplace. "Children where both highly valued and, depending on the religious beliefs, culturally valued," Fernandez said. "Things have certainly changed dramatically during the past 50 years, even more so in the last 25."

Gloria Hochman, director of communications for the National Adoption Center in Philadelphia, said the kind of family willing to adopt so many children is ''a family whose high priority is children. . . . Children are not always the highest priority for everyone. Often when two parents are working, they are really very grateful when the kids grow up."

Families that adopt many children are also "very willing to forego other things in order to raise children," Hochman said. "Cultivating a career is less important."

The Siegels are a case in point. They take great pride in the way their brood, the focus of their lives, has turned out.

Louis Siegel spells out his philosophy this way:

"You can teach somebody how to drive a car and how to work, but it's difficult to pass on how to be a good human being - I really felt good about that. If I succeed in nothing else in life, making them compassionate and caring people was more important."

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