`I am going to get you out of here,` he vowed before lumbering from the orphanage with a heavy heart.

Dad’s Vow Kept Triplets, Their Siblings Close For 50 Years Hokendauqua Trio, Born A Half-century Ago This Week, And Brothers And Sisters Were Sent To An Orphanage When Their Mom Died Young. But Their Determined Father Reunited The Family At Home.

May 28, 2000|by MIKE FRASSINELLI, The Morning Call

Every night, he left his 11 children with hugs and a promise.

`I am going to get you out of here,` he vowed before lumbering from the orphanage with a heavy heart.

In the foyer where they had gathered a half-hour before his arrival, the teary-eyed children would begin counting down the 23 hours until Dad would visit again.

How could it have gone so wrong for the Hudak family?

Why, just four years earlier papa Frank `Fireball` Hudak was a celebrity of sorts, having been the father of triplets at Sacred Heart Hospital in Allentown.

In the days before fertility drugs made multiple births ho-hum, surviving triplets in 1950 was big news. The births of Baby Rose, Baby Steve and Baby Paul on June 2, 1950 — a half-century ago on Friday — were treated like the arrival of a president in Allentown.

To put it in perspective, not only were they the first triplets ever at Sacred Heart, the hospital went about 30 years before having the next set. In the first half of the 20th century, just three sets of triplets had been born in Allentown.

Frank Hudak and his wife, Sue, appeared on the `Strike It Rich` quiz show in New York City in 1952 and charmed host Warren Hull and the audience with their easy-come-easy-go nature.

It billed itself `the quiz show with a heart,` with contestants always regular Joes or Josephines who needed money.

Answering five questions, including which city is the one of `Brotherly Love` — a gimme for Pennsylvanians — the Hudaks pocketed $300. The money allowed them to dig a well and access water for the huge family, which included 10 children at the time. Two children would arrive later.

Previously, Frank Hudak went to a tavern a quarter-mile from their five-room home in Hokendauqua and lugged jugs of well water over his shoulders.

Those shoulders had to carry an entire family on May 20, 1954, when Sue Hudak died of a brain hemorrhage in the home at age 38.

`I remember standing at the door and they had this big black car there,` recalled Rose Hudak, not quite 4 at the time. `Mom was in there.`

Frank Hudak, a cement mixer, struggled for four months to keep his children, ranging from 1 to 18 years old, together. His son George, at 18 the oldest child, tried to help.

`Me and Dad tried to do it together, which was a joke,` George said. `When I was upstairs trying to do something, these kids were downstairs splashing each other with paint. And Dad would come home and get mad.`

Finding it too difficult to be father, mother and provider, Frank Hudak reluctantly decided to place 10 of his 12 children in the Sacred Heart Home and Trade School in Coopersburg. The oldest daughter, Barbara, decided she would join the 10 brothers and sisters, including the triplets, in the orphanage.

George stayed home.

Paul, the first Hudak triplet out of his mother’s womb and timid as a boy, has unpleasant memories of the orphanage and some of its strict nuns.

Some children would tie sheets to a bed and try to escape through the window, risking a broken leg for a chance at freedom.

`It was horrible,` Paul said. `Me and my sister got slapped` for such things as wetting the bed.

Rose and Steve don’t recall the orphanage being a terrible place.

It was military-style, with numerous beds in one room.

One thing Paul and his siblings had to look forward to was a visit by Dad.

`He used to see us every night after work,` Paul remembered. `He had determination, our dad. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I am going to get you out of here.’ `

Steve recalled the father saying the children were going to come out of the orphanage `as a family.`

A story about the hard-luck family appeared in the Sunday Call-Chronicle in 1955 and was picked up by newspapers in such cities as New York, Philadelphia and Boston.

Mary McIsaac of Nova Scotia saw a version of the article that ran in The Boston Globe and was impressed by Frank Hudak’s determination. She was one of several women who wrote the father of 12 a complimentary letter.

Other people offered to adopt the children.

Frank Hudak wrote back to McIsaac. They began to correspond and she visited him. They married on Sept. 9, 1955.

The children returned home.

`It was great that we got another mom,` George said. `She was an angel in disguise. It it wasn’t for our mom, we would probably be scattered throughout the United States.`

`She was heaven-sent,` added Steve.

To hear the Hudak triplets describe their childhood from that point, it was mostly a typical one.

The boys played Little League baseball and basketball and softball behind their pink-sided house (anything into or past the Coplay Creek was a home run) and eventually got an above-ground pool. Siblings wondered why the pool water looked different, until they saw George after a softball game taking a bath in the pool and lathering with soap.

They camped, fished, rode sleds, climbed weeping willow trees and fell from weeping willow trees.

Their property was a mini-farm, with cows, chickens and pigs.

`It’s not like today, where you have got to go to a park,` Steve said. `We had a family. We played cops and robbers. You name it, we played it.`

They formed the rock group the Flames in the 1960s, with Paul on drums, Steve on lead guitar and brother Ed, the seventh child, on bass. They played Beatles songs and competed at the Allentown Fair and Dorney Park before the flame went out.

Not typical were the sleeping arrangements. There were three children per regular-size bed, including Rose, who had a reputation for tossing and turning at night.

Children at school knew the triplets were unique. The newspaper would write about them every five birthdays or so.

Still, Paul said the triplets did not expect — or receive — special treatment as they progressed from Hokendauqua grade school to Whitehall middle school to Whitehall High School.

`We were basically treated like everybody else,` he said.

Besides, being a triplet wasn’t going to help you on the baseball field or basketball court, where things really mattered for the Hudak boys.

George likened the rough basketball games to Hokendauqua’s version of the NBA.

`Everybody thought we were getting paid to play this game,` he chuckled.

Even a benign discussion about sports some 40 years later can become competitive.

`Who hit the most balls across the bridge?` Steve asked his brothers this month, expecting them to say he did.

`I did,` replied proud George, who ran the Hokendauqua Eagles hardball team. `Thirty-eight in one year.`

As competitive as they were on the athletic fields, the siblings were as protective of one another at home and school.

Frank Hudak Sr. had his children kneel at a crucifixion and pray before going to bed every night.

Children stayed at home until they got married, and three — third child Eleanor, fifth child Margie and sixth child Frank — had wedding receptions at the house. Entertainment was cheap. The Flames played the music.

George was the family’s cruise director of sorts, making sure the large group remained a tightly woven one.

He drove a variety of trucks, but the favorite one of the siblings and the neighborhood children was the musical Mister Softee ice cream truck he would drive on muggy days.

George also was a popular brother around Easter, when he would come home with chocolate rabbits as tall as some of his siblings.

He is continuing the commitment his father made to keep the family together, scheduling frequent weekend reunions and annual Christmas parties. Many of the get-togethers are at the Center Valley home of fourth child Martha, who has a pool.

`Some families, they have big families but they just don’t stick together,` George said. `They just leave and don’t correspond. That’s what made this family stick together. Pop’s commitment to bring them home.`

Frank Hudak Sr. retired early at age 57, after a falling load of bricks at work broke his ribs. He died in 1990, at age 79.

Her work raising the family finished, Mary Hudak left to care for her mother.

Frank Hudak Sr. used to play Santa Claus at family Christmas parties. That task has been picked up by lanky Paul, who needs a pillow on his belly to pass for St. Nick.

All of the siblings except twelfth child Michael live in the Lehigh Valley area. And Michael is a short drive away in Old Bridge, N.J.

As close as the siblings are, each of the triplets feels an indescribable, special attachment to the other two.

`There’s a connection,` Paul said.

The siblings needed one another more than ever when Frank Jr. died in a fiery car crash in Northampton in January 1987. He was 40 and left behind three children.

`That was devastating,` Steve said. `As close a family as we are, we never got over it.`

Paul had finished his morning run driving a bus for the Parkland School District when his boss told him to go home right away.

Paul thought something happened to his dad, and was startled to see him at he home.

`Dad,` Paul said, `you’re all right. What’s wrong?`

`It’s your brother.`

Paul went for a walk along the Coplay, the same creek he tried to reach with his softball hits.

The memories, good and bad, rained during a gathering this month with the triplets and George at Paul’s house in South Whitehall Township.

There was talk about the orphanage, the neighborhood baseball games, Frank’s death, the mother who saved a family, the uniqueness of being triplets and the father who vowed to keep a family together.

They talked about the scrapes that accompanied a childhood of climbing trees and the time they got so rowdy that Mary Hudak sent them to bed without their usual snack.

The triplets sneaked down the steps to bring back jelly, apple butter and molasses sandwiches for the siblings.

Not knowing the children had raided the cupboards, Mary Hudak, feeling bad for sending them to bed without chow, told the youngsters they could eat.

For once, they didn’t want to.

Steve grinned at the memory.

`It’s hard to believe that it’s 50 years,` Steve said.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

The Hudak triplets were the talk of Allentown when they were born a half-century ago.

Through family births and deaths, marriages and divorces, accomplishments and setbacks, siblings Steve, Rose and Paul have remained close — emotionally and geographically.

So, where are they now?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Steve — Lives in Allentown and works for the Federal Aviation Administration as an aviation safety inspector; married the former Joan Petrovich and has two children, Annmarie Toth and Stephen Hudak, both of Allentown; joined the Navy after high school; only member of immediate family to graduate from college.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Paul — Or `Mr. Paul,` as he is known by the youngsters for whom he drives a Parkland School District bus; lives in South Whitehall Township with his wife, the former Diane Dunbar, and their dog, cat and parakeet; trains bus drivers wanting to get a commercial license.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Rose — Works in the Allentown School District purchasing department, where she recently was recognized by a Sacred Heart Hospital nurse who held her after she was born; lives in Allentown with Greg Harrison, her companion of 21 years, and German shepherd Schultz.

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