A hard time saying 'no'
AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Richard Ockenhouse is not quite sure how many kids he and his late wife, Mary, raised but he thinks it is between 50 and 60. He adopted 12 of them in one day.
Richard Ockenhouse is not quite sure how many kids he and his late wife, Mary, raised but he thinks it is between 50 and 60. He adopted 12 of them in one day.
Richard was born in Lehighton in 1929. He struggled in school with a type of dyslexia that initially had him writing backwards then developed into a short-term memory problem.
Discouraged with school, he began working at 12 years old at the former Sue Sally's Store on Third Street in Lehighton where he would fill the soda cases and take the garbage out and burn it. Although he had trouble with academics, he was adept at following directions and a good worker. He went on to have a long-term career in construction.
The first book Richard learned to read was the Bible, and he joined his parents in the Lutheran church. During the Korean War, he entered the service and was stationed in Germany.
"I met an old sergeant and we started teaching the Bible," said Ockenhouse who was baptized in Germany into the Church of Christ.
"On return to the U.S., I was looking for the nearest Church of Christ, and found one in Philadelphia," he explained. "I learned about one in Reading, and then I found out about one meeting in the Green Room of the Americus Hotel in Allentown."
He joined the church and helped them construct the pyramid-shaped building where they currently meet.
In Lehighton, Richard loved hiking near Flagstaff. He was in his mid-thirties and unmarried when a desirable property became available there. About the same time, Mary Marks joined Ockenhouse's church.
Mary's husband had left, leaving her with two children, Brenda and Robert. After a courtship that included a picnic and rifle shooting at Beltzville Dam - a project that Richard helped to construct - they married, and in 1964, moved into the Flagstaff Mountain home. Mary was seven years older than Richard. They would have one child, a daughter, Lisa.
"Mary liked people and especially children," Richard said. "She'd meet someone and invite them for Thanksgiving. I couldn't say 'no'. I had a hard time saying 'no'."
One day, while Richard was installing curbing at First Street in Lehighton, Mary came to talk with him. A four-month old child had been found in the A&P parking lot. She told Richard that the County Child Services asked if she could take the child. Richard couldn't say "no".
While visiting a woman in the hospital, Mary was asked if she could care for a little boy and girl that a mother couldn't care for.
Richard couldn't say "no".
"The intention was to take these children temporarily," Richard explained. "We kept accumulating children until we had twelve plus three of our own. We decided to adopt. On a single day, Judge Lavelle presided over the adoption of 12 children by Richard and Mary Ockenhouse.
"We adopted to make them more secure because some of them were in three or four foster homes before we got them," Richard said.
The Ockenhouse household would peak at 20, including Richard and Mary, their three children, 12 adopted children, and two children from child welfare.
"Child Welfare would call us to take kids for a temporary period," Richard said. "We must have had 50 or 60 kids over time."
"Mary wanted to help wherever she could. I remember her telling me that when she went to school in Kentucky, where her teacher taught her to give back to society."
Many of the children that came to Richard and Mary Ockenhouse were ill.
"Danny couldn't walk. He had Cerebral Palsy," he explained. "Another child was born with half a brain and had a variety of physical problems.
"One child, Chris, came to us through the church from Pat Boone's younger brother, Nick Boone. Chris had muscular dystrophy. He was supposed to live to 14, but lived to 18 and graduated from high school. He died at the Jerry Lewis camp."
Through all the time, Mary raised and often home-schooled the children, Richard worked as a general laborer in construction 10 hours a day, six days a week. Mary passed away five years ago.
"Someone would give Mary one when she was visiting in the hospital," Richard said. "Some days I would come home and there would be another child here."