Children changing lives

Date: 2006-10-15

Register-Guard, The (Eugene, OR)
Author: Mark Baker The Register-Guard

H o l t A n n i v e r s a r y

It was 1956 in Seoul, South Korea, and the little girl said goodbye to her mother, thinking it would not be long before she'd see her again. Soon-ju was, after all, just 3 years old.

But she began to cry in the small office at the Salvation Army Officers Cadet School when "she finally realized what was happening to her," David Kim writes in the prologue of "Who Will Answer," his recently revised autobiography that contains much of the history of Eugene's Holt International Children's Service.

"I picked her up and held her close," writes Kim, 75, Holt's president emeritus. "Do you remember what your mother said?" Kim asked Soon-ju. "You are going to see your daddy in the United States."

"No!" Soon-ju screamed. "I don't want to go to my daddy. I want to go to my mommy!"

It's a memory that will never leave Kim, who has lived in Eugene since 1966 and could not imagine how his life would change the day Harry Holt, a 50-year-old lumberman from Creswell, hired him as an interpreter in Seoul a half-century ago.

"Is this the kind of job I'm going to do with Mr. Holt?" Kim, who will receive a special "Founders Award" at Holt's 50th anniversary conference and celebration at the Hilton Eugene Wednesday through Saturday, recalls thinking. "I was questioning whether I had the emotional strength to do this kind of job."

Five decades later, Kim is glad he found the strength. Because the story of Soon-ju is just one in 40,000.

That's about how many foreign-born children the Eugene international adoption agency has placed with American families since Harry Holt and his wife, Bertha, adopted eight mixed-race babies in 1955 that were the product of Korean mothers and soldiers from the United States and the nations that fought with it in the Korean War.

And all it took was an act of Congress. Literally.

`A wonderful thing'

Harry and Bertha Holt - who married despite being first cousins - were a God-fearing, fundamentalist Christian farm couple who had fled drought-stricken South Dakota for the Willamette Valley in 1937. They chose to raise their six children in Creswell.

One day in 1954, 11-year-old daughter Suzanne came home from school and asked if the family could go see a documentary playing at South Eugene High School about the plight of Korean War orphans.

They didn't know it, but Harry and Bertha were soon to become pioneers of international adoption.

"I looked at Harry," Bertha Holt wrote in "Seed From the East," one of three books she published during her 96 years of life. "He was motionless and tense. I knew every scene had cut him like a knife. I was hurt, too. ... We had never seen such emaciated arms and legs, such bloated starvation-stomachs and such wistful little faces searching for someone to care."

After viewing the film, the Holts agreed to sponsor 13 children. But just sending money for food, shelter and clothing would not be enough for them. Those children, they believed, needed families.

Bertha Holt, then 50, secretly began to dream about adopting eight of the orphans, but she didn't dare tell Harry because she had been raised to believe it was not a woman's place to tell her husband what to do. Instead, Harry asked her one night: How many do you think we should adopt?

She was thinking of six, she said, not wanting to shock her husband too badly. He confided that he was actually thinking of eight or more.

Eight it would be. Eight was enough.

"When they first came, I was jealous of the attention they got," recalls Suzanne Holt Peterson, now 63, who has lived in Creswell all her life.

Peterson recalls how she and her five biological siblings got a crash course in infant life, as five of the eight adoptees - Joseph, Robert, Mary, Christine, Nathaniel, Paul, Helen and Betty - were still in diapers.

Asked what her parents (Harry died in 1964 and Bertha in 2000) would think of Holt International today - and its legacy of having processed more international adoptions than any agency in the United States - with its 160 employees worldwide, its $20 million budget and agencies in 15 foreign nations, from Asia to Russia, India to South America, Peterson says: "In the beginning, I don't think they really understood. I think if they knew, it would have terrified them. But it turned out to be a wonderful thing."

One in five

Of the approximately 200,000 foreign-born children who have been adopted by American families since Congress passed the "Holt Law" in 1956, 40,000, or one in five, have come through Holt International, says Susan Soon-keum Cox, the agency's vice president of public policy and external affairs and an adoptee herself - No. 167 - who was raised in Brownsville.

Cox, 54, still marvels at what the Holts created. "There is an international treaty that has been signed and adopted by 66 countries because of an idea that started in Lane County," she says.

Cox is talking about the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption of 1993, which led to Congress passing the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000, which approved the provisions of the convention. It is expected that the United States will ratify the convention next year, Cox says.

The convention sets minimum international standards and procedures for adoptions that occur between nations to ensure protection from exploitation of children, and of birth and adoptive parents, and to prevent abuses such as abductions and sales of children.

"Something the treaty does that is very important is that it recognizes for the first time, in a global context, that intercountry adoption is preferred for children over orphanages," Cox says.

But decades before any of this occurred, the Holts, with the help of an Oregon senator, had to change American law concerning international adoptions.

While Harry flew to Korea in 1955 to try to persuade the Korean government to allow him to adopt eight of its own, Bertha remained in Creswell, caring for her family and the farm, and working with Sen. Richard Neuberger to lobby Congress to change the law to allow families to adopt more than two foreign-born children.

It took months, but by October the "Holt Bill" had become law, passing on the last day of the 88th congressional session by a unanimous vote. President Dwight Eisenhower signed it a few days later.

Harry and Bertha had become a national - if not international - story as images of them coming down the stairs of a jumbo jet in Portland with all eight orphans landed on the pages of Life magazine and on the front page of newspapers from coast to coast.

"I always say, 'We were the pick of the litter,' ' says Helen (Holt) Stampe, 52, who was the third-youngest of the eight adoptees. "I could have lived a totally different life."

Instead, Stampe has worked for the Oregon University System for 32 years. Today, she's an executive assistant in the OUS chancellor's office on the University of Oregon campus. "I feel blessed," she says.

In December of 1958, just three years after Helen and her seven new siblings arrived in Oregon, Harry stepped off another plane in Portland with 107 adoptees of the Holt Adoption Program, the precursor to Holt International, that was now two years old.

And so it would go during the next few years, the Holts arranging adoptions for hundreds of American families, until Harry Holt's death from a heart attack in Korea in 1964. He was only 59.

He had lasted almost twice as long as doctors said he would after his first heart attack in 1950 at the age of 45.

Bertha Holt, known simply as "Grandma Holt" to the thousands of children adopted over the decades through the agency, took over the agency and traveled to more than 20 countries before her death in 2000 at 96. "She was really amazing when you think of what she did," Cox says.

She met with heads of state. She was admired and befriended by former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who called her "an American legend" upon her death. She sat next to Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1966 at a dinner in Washington, D.C., when she was named the "American Mother of the Year," one of 47 awards and honors she received for her life's work.

An avid jogger also known as the "Jogging Grandma," she even broke the 400-meter world record for her age group during a masters track meet at Hayward Field in 1996. She was 92.

She also suffered much heartbreak despite her remarkable life. She lost four children. Wanda, the eldest daughter, died in 1961; Stewart, the eldest son, in 1991.

In between, two of her adopted children also died. Nathaniel, or Nat as he became better known, drowned in Hawaii in 1972, and Joe committed suicide in 1984.

`Our commitment'

Emily Kidder, 28, of Cottage Grove, remembers sitting in the lap of Grandma Holt, as countless children did through the years at memorable Holt family picnics for adopted children and their families at the Holt farm in Creswell and, in later years, at Camp Harlow in Eugene.

"I was blessed to be placed in such a loving and supportive family," says Kidder, who was born Song Yoo Mee in Seoul on Jan. 1, 1978, and adopted by Dave and Judy Weinkauf of Eugene in August 1979.

"And Holt's mission is to do what's best for the child, and you can feel that when you're around them," she says of the organization. "It's amazing for me to think about how this couple who had a huge heart for God's work, to know that they brought these kids back to Creswell and it's just five minutes from my house," says Kidder, a 1996 graduate of Marist High School who has twice visited Korea on tours prepared by Holt.

She has visited the Holts' graves on a hill above Ilsan Center, the adoption compound and school Harry built in the late 1950s in Ko-yang City, about an hour north of Seoul.

Molly Holt, 70, the third-born of Harry and Bertha's six biological children, has spent her entire nursing career at the center, making it her life's work since going to Korea with her father in 1956.

"My mother always told us not to be proud, but to be thankful," Molly Holt writes in an e-mail from Korea. She also will receive a "Founders Award" at this week's conference and celebration.

"I surely can be thankful for the last 50 years, Molly Holt continues. "Mostly, we must judge it by the happiness in the lives of the adoptive children and families we have touched. Families are not perfect, but they are still the best provision for children who have lost their birth families."

Regardless of the Holts' intentions, their work was not admired by all.

"The Holts believed they were doing God's work, but they became lightning rods for controversy about how adoptive families should be made," writes Ellen Herman, a University of Oregon history professor who has studied international adoption, on her "Adoption History Project" Web site.

"Many professionals and policy-makers in the U.S. Children's Bureau, the Child Welfare League of America and the International Social Service devoted themselves (unsuccessfully) to putting the Holts out of business," Herman writes.

Some felt that taking mixed-race babies and children away from their homeland was wrong.

What made the Holts unique, Herman says, is "they took this dramatic personal action." It generated a lot of publicity and made them heroes to many, but others "were absolutely horrified," she says.

Today, Holt International and other adoption agencies still battle relief organizations who do not believe in international adoption, Cox says. But Holt still believes this is a way, often a last resort, for orphans in other nations to have a family, she says.

"Our commitment is finding families for children," Cox says. "That has been our focus for 50 years and it will continue to be our focus."

Dec. 31, 1927 - Cousins Harry and Bertha Holt are married in Colorado after arriving by train from Iowa, where first cousins were not allowed to marry. They soon move to South Dakota to start a farm and a family. Four of their biological children - Stewart, Wanda, Molly and Barbara - are born in South Dakota.
1937 - The Holts move to Creswell, where they establish a successful farm and lumber business. Daughters Suzanne and Linda are born here. 1950 - Harry suffers a severe heart attack at 45, requiring early retirement.
1954 - The family sees a documentary about Amerasian children in Korea orphaned from the war.
1955 - Congress passes the "Holt Bill," allowing the couple to adopt eight of the orphans and bring them to Creswell. Their arrival receives national attention, prompting hundreds of people to ask the Holts to help them adopt Korean children.
1956 - The Holt Adoption Program, known today as Holt International Children's Services, is founded. The agency pioneers "intercountry" adoption.
1958 - Harry builds what is known today as the Ilsan Center, an adoption compound and school north of Seoul where daughter Molly has worked since 1956.
1964 - Harry dies of a heart attack in Korea. Bertha, now a single mother of 13 children, takes over leadership of Holt International.
1966 - Bertha receives the "American Mother of the Year" award in Washington, D.C.
1993 - The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption is created. Today, 66 countries have signed the treaty. 2000 - Congress passes the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000, which approved the provisions of the Hague Convention.
June 2000 - At the age of 96, Bertha travels to Miami to receive the Kiwanis World Service Award, the latest in a long list of honors presented in recognition of her work.
July 31, 2000 - Bertha dies at her Creswell home.
2001 - Holt International president emeritus publishes "Who Will Answer," his autobiography that contains much of the history of the historic adoption agency.
2006 - Holt International celebrates 50 years. The Holt adoption legacy that has created thousands of new families started with eight Korean War orphans


Pound Pup Legacy