More Than Just A Number: Harry and Bertha Holt’s Adopted Children

Every time I read an article about the history of Korean adoption I am reminded of Harry and Bertha Holt’s role in jump-starting adoptions from Korea.  Articles often reference the fact that they adopted eight children, but never have I come across any more information about who they are and what they did.

I’ve often wondered what their lives were like growing up being adopted.  What were the family dynamics like in such a large household, and what insights can they share seeing the Korean adoptee community grow through organized non-profits, conferences and the blogosphere?

A few years ago when I first visited Korea, I was told that one of the Holt children committed suicide.  It was something that consumed me for a long time after my trip.  But it had somehow faded away until I was reading another article and it dawned on me that I had never attempted to find out anything about the circumstances of his death, or the other adoptees in the family.

Let’s start with what I’ve been able to find on the Holt KADs.

Harry and Bertha did indeed adopt eight children from Korea.  Here are their names:

Joseph Holt (suicide 1984)
Robert Holt
Mary Holt
Christine Holt
Nathaniel ‘Nat’ Holt (drown 1972)
Paul Holt
Helen Holt Stampe
Betty Holt Rodriguez

and…

Biological children

Stewart Holt d 1991
Wanda Holt d 1961
Molly Holt
Barbara Holt
Suzanne Holt Peterson
Linda Holt

Joseph Tae Holt, was 32 when sadly, he took his own life in 1984.  According to the Eugene Register-Guard, a “Resident” of the Holt home had called the authorities to report that he had threatened to take his own life, and shortly after there had been a gun shot.  When the ambulance arrived, he had passed away.  To read more you can follow this link to a story about his tragic death.

What is striking to me, is that most adoptees that were adopted through Holt did not know this.  They know the story of the Holts, but are unaware of Joseph Tae Holt.  But what it reminds us to consider is this.  There have been and continue to be mental health issues for adoptees.  Sadly, Joseph is not the first adoptee to have taken his own life.  And who knows what his circumstances were, I’m certainly not assigning any blame but I do think it serves as a reminder that adoptees need to have mental health professionals who are sensitive to their needs.

I was also able to track down some information on another one of their children, Betty Rhee Rodriguez-Holt.  It’s not much, but I found a wedding announcement in 1974.  I believe she later remarried because in a short obituary honoring Bertha Holt in 2000, an NYTimes article said that she was survived by  Betty Blankenship.

From that article I was able to determine that as of 2000, there were 9 of Holt children still alive.

Barbara Chambers, Suzanne Peterson, Linda Pack, Robert Holt, Mary Last, Christine Russell, Helen Stampe, Paul Holt and Betty Blankenship

Based on this, I would have to conclude that Paul Holt, Helen Stampe, Mary Last, Robert Holt, Betty Blankenship, Christine Russell are all still alive today.  Perhaps this has changed over the past ten years, but I’m assuming it’s pretty accurate.

This is all I was able to come up with on the Holt adoptees in the family.  I know there are a few books out there published by Bertha Holt such as “Bring My Sons From Afar: The unfolding of Harry Holt’s dream” and “The Seed from the East”

But I have yet to read these, so perhaps someone who has can shed some light on the lives of the Holt adoptees.

And of course I should also mention, that I am interested in all of the Holt family’s children, not just those who were adopted.  But of course, here I am, blogging about adoptees.  :)  With that said, I would be thrilled to hear that there are interviews out there with the Holt children.  There is so much to wonder about and if anyone has information about interviews or oral history collections with them I would love to know where I could find them.  -GS

8 Comments on “More Than Just A Number: Harry and Bertha Holt’s Adopted Children

  1. the following article was published in Korea Herald in 2002 (but is unfortunately no longer online) about the one Holt-adoptee who never came to be adopted, Judy Lee Holt:

    Judy Lee Holt: child lost in a stone forest

    Saddest of all are the children. Everyone had it hard in late 19th
    and early 20th-century Korea, before the miracle on the Han changed
    everything. Many tombstones in the Old Foreigners’ Cemetery show
    lives ended in their 30s or 40s. Native Koreans surely did no better.
    Saddest of all is the little forest of children’s tombstones, each
    about the size and shape of a cradle.
    On one is engraved “Mighty Mouse.” An Amerasian child, son of a
    soldier and his Korean wife, young Mouse died before being named. He
    is remembered now by the nickname he bore in the womb, a tribute to
    his fight to live.

    Others read “Baby Kruse,” “Baby Girl Johnson,” “Baby Boy Iwamuro”
    and “Little Mark.”

    Another reads “Judy Lee Holt.”

    That last name might sound familiar.

    Harry and Bertha Holt of Creswell, Ore., saw a documentary about
    Korea in 1954 and were moved. The Korean War had just ended. Many
    children were orphaned, both parents killed in the chaos. Others, of
    mixed race, were abandoned by their American fathers at war’s end.
    Korea then was one of the poorest countries in Asia.

    The Holts wanted to help. They knew poverty. They began their married
    life as sharecroppers, living in a trailer. They raised six children
    through the Great Depression. Harry had made some money in the lumber
    business, however. They were also Christians.

    When Harry survived a severe heart attack in 1950, they decided it
    was in order for them to do some good in the world. This was their
    call. They could give a few more children a home.

    Harry flew to Korea and adopted nine orphans. Unfortunately, the U.S.
    government would not recognize the children as Americans. They were
    potential immigrants. They would have to take their chances like
    everyone else. To bring his family home, Harry would need to change
    U.S. law.

    So Bertha wrote letters to Congressmen and the press. Her struggle
    caught the public imagination. In two months, the “Holt Law,”
    recognizing international adoptions, passed both houses of Congress.
    Harry and eight little Holts were able to come to America.

    Bertha’s campaign had unforeseen consequences. Others, touched,
    approached the farm couple asking how they, too, could adopt Korean
    orphans.

    The call was clear. Harry scraped together what remained of his
    lumber money and returned to Korea. He started an orphanage and
    adoption agency, Holt Children’s Services, to help as many more as he
    could.

    The couple has helped tens of thousands so far. Holt International
    has spread to 12 countries, from the original Korean orphanage at
    Ilsan, Gyeonggi Province. Many adoptees now manage its affairs as
    adults.

    Harry, long on borrowed time, died in 1964 in Korea, his life mission
    accomplished. Bertha followed in 1999, known to thousands of orphans
    as “Grandma Holt.” Neither lies here at the Old Foreigners’ Cemetery.

    However, here lies Judy Lee Holt. Judy was one of Harry’s original
    nine adoptees. She never made it to her new home. She died waiting
    for the U.S. government to change its laws. She could not hang on
    long enough for the better nutrition and medical facilities that
    might have saved her.

    She would have been in her 40s today.

    How many other Korean children died too soon and just missed the new
    prosperity? How many are dying now, somewhere in the North?

    To visit Judy, take subway Line No. 2 or 6 to Hapjeong station and
    walk south toward the Han River. Yanghwajin Cemetery is to the right
    under the subway bridge. Judy is to the west of the grounds.

    The modern headquarters of Holt Children’s Services are a few blocks
    away.

    Stephen K. Roney guided the Seoul Mystery Tours. He is now at
    Athabasca University in Canada. Contact him at sroney@bigfoot.com or
    http://www.seoulmysterytours.com.

    By Stephen K. Roney Contributing writer

    2002.05.10

  2. Here’s a little more information.

    http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1310&dat=20061015&id=rFoUAAAAIBAJ&sjid=kPADAAAAIBAJ&pg=6995,3614775

    The gist of what pertains to the Holt children:

    Adoptees:
    Helen Holt Stampe is an executive assistant in the Oregon University System chancellor’s office. Has worked there for 32 years (as of article date Oct 15, 2006). Quotes: “I always say, ‘We were the pick of the litter.'” “I could have lived a totally different life.” “I feel blessed.” She was 52 at time of article.

    Nathaniel (Nat) Holt drowned in Hawaii (island and circumstance unspecified), 1972.

    Bios:
    Molly Holt spent her entire nursing career at the Ilsan Centre, making it her life’s work since going to Korea with her father in 1956. Quotes: “My mother always told us not to be proud, but to be thankful.” 70 ATOA.

    Suzanne Holt Peterson has lived in Creswell Oregon all her life. Quotes: “When they first came, I was jealous of the attention they got.” 63 ATOA.

    I confess I knew very little about Holts until now, I actually wasn’t that interested as I always thought they were just “do-goody” christians. I am disturbed by the comment about Bertha Holt wanting to adopt 8 kids but said 6 because it wasn’t a wife’s place to tell her husband what to do. I think this kind of convoluted subservient dishonesty is unhealthy psychology. Also by the fact they were first cousins who left Iowa to marry since it was illegal there (hence a socially unacceptable relationship in the state that they grew up in). I might have to call myself a bigot if I went so far as saying, inbreeding baptist trailer trash, but the thought did cross my mind…

    – LL

  3. Hi # K83 – 3518,

    This may not be terribly illuminating, but I visited Molly Holt at her home in Il-San three times in the 1980s. The first time, I was invited to stay for dinner and we had some nice conversation. The second time, I had my adoptive mom along, and Bertha also happened to be there, and we were invited to stay for lunch. Both Bertha and Molly had overnight stays at my home back in the 1960’s on separate tours, as well.

    Anyway, when I had dinner there back in 1983 (the year you were adopted?) I was curious about her adopted siblings, and inquired. Basically what she said (and she must have already answered this question hundreds of times) was something like ‘Just as with any large family, some did well, and some did not . . . ‘ At the time I didn’t know that one was already deceased.

    Later in the conversation she talked about the time when Bertha was voted “Mother of the Year” in America and went on tour. Molly said that she had urged her mother not to accept the award, that her second brood of kids needed her at home. This was around 1967, so the kids would have been in the 14 – 16 range, and apparently there were some teenage issues going on that got worse when their mom was away for extended periods of time. Her national tour was also the occasion for staying overnight in our home.

    I might add that that’s not so different from what happened in my own family. There were three biological children and seven adoptees (two from Korea) plus dozens and dozens of foster children. My younger brother had a troubled life and died before he was forty. One sister struggles with alcoholism. The rest of us have various issues, which fortunately are not debilitating most of the time.

    I believe the biological children in the family also experienced various degrees of jealousy over all the attention that the adoptees were getting. There may have even been some feelings along the lines of ‘So, we weren’t good enough for you? You had to go out and adopt all these other kids?’ And even feelings that they would have been much better off materially, if the financial resources had been spread out so widely.

    That’s a pretty amazing thread on Seabrook’s article and interview. By chancce I happened to hear him on NPR when it was first being broadcast. Then, amazingly, there was a copy of the New Yorker in my mailbox when I got home that evening, even though I don’t subscribe to it.

    All the best,

    -ES

  4. Bertha and Harry Holt were actually my great-grandparents. I’m the granddaughter of Barbara Holt Chambers. I haven’t actually met all the Holt kids, some of them died before I was born, and I live in a different state so I’ve only been able to visit them a few times, Betty and Helen are the ones I’ve spent the most time with. Harry died before I was born and Bertha died when I was 6, I wish I would have had more time with her though. My grandma (Barbara) has told me so many wonderful stories about her! I’m currently reading “The Seed From The East” And its the coolest thing ever, its a great book, and its especially interesting to me because I know the characters and the house it takes place in and everything. Every year there is a Holt picnic in Oregon where adoptees from around the country attend, also much of the Holt family is usually there, I went back in 2008 and it was amazing! It was so cool to know that my family helped so many people! You can google it for more info. If you have any questions feel free to ask me, I might be able to give you some answers!

  5. When I was in the 5th and 6th grade, Nat Holt was my best friend. He invited me over to spend the night at his home many times. I got to know all the Holts, including “Grandma Holt”. I went to church with the family on Sundays for a while. I got my first Bible (it had my name engraved on it), and I was so proud of that Bible. Bertha Holt was an amazing woman. She drove an old VW Bus to church back then…she would pick me at my house, and we would all drive into Eugene to attend Church. It was a lot of fun.
    I’m not sure what brought me to this website today, but I’ve been thinking about Creswell, Ore. lately, and tried to find Nat on facebook…he wasn’t there. I did a search and found this article. I found out today (Dec. 3rd, 2010) that Grandma Holt died in 2000 at the age of 96…I’m so happy she lived to be that age, but I also learned that my best friend Nat drowned in 1972, and it totally shocked me. Then I saw that Joe committed suicide…I knew him well too…! Today is a very sad day for me.
    I knew Helen, Mary, and Paul. I remember the rest of the children, but wasn’t as close, but they were super nice to me too. I always loved going to the Holt house (it was “pink”), and up on a hill with apple orchards, Nat had a horse at the time, and everyone made me feel like one of them…I was an adoptee for a little while each time I stayed…I loved it.
    My stepfather was extremely abusive, and I was beat all the time, so going to the Holt home, was my solitude, my peace, and a place that made me feel safe, if only for a night or two. I blessed to have known this family, and shared time with them. If any of the children want to contact me, it’s ok…I’m sure they have one question they would like to ask…and that’s about my name…it wasn’t Victoria then, but it is now….(just a clue for them to think about)… :-)

  6. I,m not sure how i stumbled on to this site.I knew all the holt family and was Nats best friend for a few years before he died. He stopped to see me just before he left for Hawaii, that was the last I heard from any of them but I still think of him often. I have thought of Helen and mary often but don.t know anymore about them.I would like to here from them.

  7. I just finished reading seeds from the East. I read it in two days, could not put it down and have not been able to get Bertha and Harry Holt and their family off my mind since I put the book down. They are amazing and Blessed and God was with them. I was thrilled to find out more info on them on this site, Too bad some people have to write some nasty things, Just ignore them. I am sure the Holts had to undergo alot of critizicim during their life for doing such a wonderful and brave act thru out their lives. ALso I am impressed by their friend Paul Davis who was blind and paralized and was in a nursing facility and Bertha would go and read to him Harrys letters from Korea and Paul would pray for their needs and offer up all his sufferings for them. I think he was a very special part of the huge success this couple accompolished. They were prayer warriors and they also had their own special one to go to and ask for his many prayers. God Bless this man Paul Davis. Their is no perfect family, big or small. I love and am extremely greatful for what the Holts did paving and opening the way for International adoption here in the United States. I am sure the Holts are in a very Happy place now and God is smiling with them. No one has to be adopted to have mental issues, Those issues take place in all kinds of people. Bio or adopted. It was the love and generosity that is to be admired in the Holts that they opened their hearts and said yes to something that they felt called to do. God Bless the whole Holt family and Thankyou very much.

  8. Joe was my best friend and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.
    My wife and I had gotten Joe a sheep-herding job near Oilmont, Montana which he seemed to enjoy.
    Less than a year later (after he was done with his year’s contract), when we moved back to Oregon, we heard – by accident – about his suicide.
    Soon afterward my wife called Bertha to express condolences.
    Bertha, in honor of our friendship with Joe, took us to lunch at the Creswell Dairy Queen (best pie in the world) and told us of the last time he’d enjoyed on earth.
    He was constantly without a driver’s license so he’d ridden his bike to Eugene to see if something he’d ordered at the surplus store had arrived.
    It hadn’t, so he was tired and cranky when he got back home where he found that he’d arrived in the midst of some sort of family event.
    In the course of this, he’d gotten angry at Mary’s dog and apparently kicked it – repeatedly.
    Mary had always been – or so he told me – his favorite sibling.
    She told him that she was done with him and that’s when he told someone to tell his Mom that he was going to kill himself in five minutes.
    Less than five minutes later the gunshot was heard.
    I found out two months later.
    I ran into Mary’s ex, Leo, at a bar a couple years after that, but that was my last of my with contact with the family.
    I don’t know why I Googled his name (Joe’s) and ended up here but I’m very glad I did.
    I would love to hear from Paul and Mary if that’s possible.
    I’m still in Eugene although they may or may not be.
    Joe was the smartest, most gregarious, and likable, scary, fireplug sort of guy (5′ 6″, 160 #. He looked badass in a goatee waay before it was fashionable) one is ever likely to meet.
    I miss him.
    Dan Brock
    plowshareforge@gmail.com

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