THOMAS B. SZALAY / FOR THE TIMES
Izidor Ruckel visits an orphanage in Romania. Decades ago, he was placed in that country’s Institute for the Unsalvageables.
December 3, 2015, 10:00 p.m.
Izidor Ruckel cradles his bowling ball, his eyes challenging the pins.
Ruckel — slender, just 5 feet 2 and still hobbled by the polio he contracted as a child — delivers the ball, which skitters into the gutter. He winces and limps away, rubbing his leg. No matter. On this night he’s just trying to have fun and, in his own way, fulfill a personal quest, a mission that took root when he was a boy in Romania.
Decades ago, he lived in a Romanian orphanage, the grim Institute for the Unsalvageables, where sedated outcasts with shaved heads were shackled to beds and even radiators.
He was featured in an episode of ABC’s “20/20” newsmagazine about Romanian orphanages, and his bright eyes and vibrant personality compelled a documentary filmmaker to bring him and other children to the U.S.
Now 35 and an American citizen, he periodically returns to his homeland to lobby for better conditions in orphanages, and he networks with Romanian adoptees like himself who want to return to find their roots and birth parents in Europe.
All the while, he struggles against health and financial obstacles. The aftereffects of polio force him to wear an old leg brace that pains him during each graveyard shift at a Wal-Mart. Without insurance, he can’t afford the $6,000 to replace it. Nor can he afford a new set of upper teeth; the old ones deteriorated in a childhood that looked like hell.
Still, he pursues his goal: to protect those once deemed unsalvageable.
And so on this night he’s bonding, and bowling, with two former orphans from Romania and Ukraine and their adoptive American mothers — laughing and tossing balls, totaling scores that barely reach 100.
Several thousand Romanian orphans were brought to the U.S. in the 1990s. With fear and longing, some seek to return, perhaps to confront birth parents who discarded them to an uncertain life. For those Ruckel has advice both practical and serious: Don’t go in winter, when the weather is depressing and transportation difficult. Keep expectations low about a meaningful reunion.
He wants adoptees to be prepared, with insight and humor.
“Go next year,” he teases Baltimore teen Michael Slein, adopted from Romania as a child. “At 18, you can drink in Romania.”
“Izidor!” scolds Michael’s mother, Jodi Slein.
Ruckel rarely smiles. Maybe it’s shame over his teeth or the fact that, in the Institute for the Unsalvageables, there was little to smile about. But there’s this steely resolve, a knack for organization, forged as the impish ringleader of older orphans in the asylum.
That drive propels him to spend hundreds of hours on the phone with adoptees, to give lectures and sponsor get-togethers like this one in a Denver bowling alley. He made a documentary, “Given Our Chance,” in 2013 and maintains a website chronicling the fate of Romanian orphans, izidorruckel.com. Now he wants to make a film from his self-published memoir, “Abandoned for Life,” to fund more programs.
Ruckel knows the perils of searching for a lost family. As a teen in suburban San Diego, he rebelled against his adoptive parents, Marlys and Dan Ruckel, insisting Romania was his true home. Years later, he briefly met his birth parents in the small town of Tasnad.
The visit taught him the real value of adoptive parents.
“Even though you find your birth mother,” he says as another ball hits the gutter, “you can never forget who your true mother is.”
Ruckel’s memories of the Institute for the Unsalvageables include the reek of urine in an unheated room full of half-naked child zombies, whose mouths were taped if they wept.
He says he was once beaten with a broomstick for mimicking an orderly. But there was a moment of grace when a worker took him home overnight to meet her children as a reward for not crying.
After the “20/20” episode aired, documentary filmmaker John Upton visited the orphanage. He later wrote about the experience: “I remember Izidor literally grabbing my leg and making me sit down next to him. He told me through an interpreter that he wanted out of that hell and as he held me in his eyes, he made me promise him that I would help.”
Upton, who died in 2013, did just that and helped bring other Romanian orphans to the U.S. for adoption or medical treatment. In 1991, Ruckel arrived in San Diego as a plucky 11-year-old who constantly rang the doorbell and sulkily told his mother he didn’t love her, telling callers asking for her, “She’s dead.”
As a teen, Romania was all he could talk about, and he was haunted by guilt over the orphans he left behind.
Marlys Ruckel recalls: “He’d say, ‘Why did you take me? Why didn’t you leave me there?'”
In 2001, Ruckel traveled to Romania and faced his birth parents with more aching questions: Why did you abandon me? Did I have polio when I was born?
The couple said poverty drove them to give up their healthy baby, who later contracted polio through a hospital needle.
Then his mother took him aside. She asked for money. He gave her $200, but she wanted more.
“Maria,” he recalls telling her, “I’m not rich. I work two jobs. I’m barely making it.”
When she suggested he ask his U.S. mother for more money, Ruckel fumed. He called San Diego: He was coming home.
“I realized America was a better world,” he says. “Not all reunions are happy-ending stories.”
Sarah Padbury, screenwriter for a film project called “Izidor,” describes Ruckel as a survivor. “Yes, he went through a pretty terrible rebellion as a teenager,” she said. “It took years to work through with his family. But now he’s on solid ground and living an independent life.”
At the bowling alley, Kim Dowds recalls how Ruckel helped save her sanity. The mother from Augusta, Ga., was estranged from her troubled daughter, Ilena, whom she adopted as a child from a Ukrainian orphanage. Ilena, now 22, is rebelling against her parents and recently left home.
Reading Ruckel’s book, Dowds realized he was the same orphan she’d seen on television decades ago. She contacted him on Facebook and asked for advice. “He urged me to get in touch with her,” Dowds recalls. “He said I needed to find her and mend fences.”
Her relationship with Ilena is still troubled, but Dowds came to Denver with her 14-year-old son, Alex, also adopted from Ukraine, to finally meet her trusted advisor.
“Izidor is everything I want my son to be,” she says.
Next year, Ruckel will join Michael and Jodi Slein when they travel to Romania as Michael seeks to meet his birth parents. But for now, Ruckel watches as Michael gently lays his head on his mother’s shoulder.
Ruckel rarely smiles. But he does now.