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‘Grandma Holt’ was pioneer in international adoptions

EUGENE, Ore. (BP)–Bertha Holt — affectionately known as “Grandma” Holt, a pioneer in international adoptions — died at age 96 at her home in Creswell, Ore., on July 31.

Holt and her late husband, Harry, who adopted eight Korean children in 1955, sparked, as The New York Times put it, “a movement that found American homes for thousands of children from overseas.”

Grandma Holt was called a “World Figure in Adoptions” in the headline of her Aug. 2 obituary in The Times. The couple established Holt International Children’s Services, in Eugene, Ore., in 1956. The agency now handles about 1,000 international adoptions a year from 12 countries. Until the days just before her death, Grandma Holt had remained active in the agency.

“Every family of an internationally adopted child should note Grandma’s passing,” Susan Freivalds of Adoptive Families magazine reflected, “for without her passion for homeless children, her tenacity, and love, our families would not have been possible.”

Holt had been a member of Pleasant Hill (Ore.) Baptist Church, a Conservative Baptist congregation, since 1978.

“I can be just Bertha here,” pastor William Page recounted Holt as saying about the 120-member church.

Known as the “jogging Grandma” for running a mile nearly every day, Holt was on her daily exercise walk when she suffered a stroke the morning of July 24. She died at her Creswell, Ore., home on July 31.

Known also for her daily Bible reading and prayer, Grandma Holt read through the Bible every year and prayed for a long list of children, families and organizations.

According to the Internet site of the Holt adoption agency, Bertha Marian Holt was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 5, 1904, the fourth of nine children. She was a graduate of the University of Iowa, Des Moines, completing a five-year course that combined liberal arts and nursing, with education as a minor.

On Dec. 31, 1927, she married Harry Holt, a wheat farmer from South Dakota. They started their married life near Firesteel, S.D., farming land owned by others for a portion of the crops they raised. In a few years they purchased their own land, and Harry built a house where their first four children were born.

Then conditions worsened. Drought, dust storms and grasshoppers destroyed most of the farmers’ crops. And with the Great Depression, farms all around began to fail. Harry maintained the family’s livelihood by adding a flour mill enterprise and by mining with his tractor lignite coal that lay a few feet below the surface of the ground. Bertha also earned extra money by serving as a midwife.

Eventually people couldn’t afford to buy Harry’s coal, so the Holts decided to start over in a new place. Harry had heard that Oregon’s Willamette River Valley had a mild climate and fertile soil and was surrounded by forested hills. In 1937 they let their house and farm go back to the state for taxes owed, packed up a car and shipped the rest of their belongings, including Harry’s tractor, by rail.

Relatives in the area helped the family as they took up residence near Creswell. Harry, who had never borrowed money and didn’t want to start, grudgingly borrowed $1,200 to buy a house. He worked hard and paid it back within a year.

Using his tractor and castoff parts of old sawmills, he started his own lumber business and soon owned a sawmill with 53 workers.

Bertha gave birth to two more children, making the Holts a family with six children — a son and five daughters. They built a new large house as Harry continued to prosper and expand his businesses into farming and commercial fishing.

But Harry’s determination and persistent hard work cost him dearly. In 1950 while considering the purchase of timber on a steep hillside, he suffered a severe heart attack. Harry and Bertha faced the reality that he would die and, though they had grown up in the church, the couple realized they had never truly committed their lives to the Lord.

Together, the Holts sought a personal relationship with God. They also asked God to give them some work, some way of serving him. A few years later they got an answer.

In December 1954, the couple saw a documentary film showing children in Korean orphanages following the Korean War. “We had never heard of such poverty and despair,” Grandma Holt wrote in her book, “The Seed from the East.” “We had never seen such emaciated arms and legs, such bloated starvation … such wistful little faces searching for someone to care.”

At first the Holts sent money to help clothe and feed the children. But haunted by the sad faces, the couple came to an inspired realization: Those children needed families, and Harry and Bertha themselves could be the parents for some of those children.

They decided to adopt eight Korean children. A friend did a little research to see how they could do it. The answer: It was impossible — “unless you can get both houses of Congress to agree and pass a law.”

“Then that’s what we’ll do,” said Bertha matter-of-factly. At the time, federal law prevented any family from adopting more than two foreign-born children.

On faith, Harry left for Korea while Bertha stayed home with their six birth children. She took care of the farm, wrote letters to congressmen and rallied friends to help her campaign for a law allowing them adopt eight children. Congress passed the “Holt bill” in just two months.

In October 1955 Harry returned with their eight children — four boys and four girls ranging in age from infancy to 3.

The Holts’ adoption was revolutionary. Intercountry adoption had been done previously, but it was virtually unheard of at that time. The social work establishment discouraged it.

Yet the Holts’ openness and example proved that a family’s love can transcend the barriers of nationality and race, that love and commitment are the most important bonds in a family.

As the Holts tried to settle in as a family, they could not forget the thousands of children who remained behind in orphanages. The Holts inspired large numbers of people across the nation, and many inquired as to how they, too, could adopt. Only five months after he brought their eight children home, Harry headed back to Korea and Bertha began work in the United States to help other children have families.

The Holt adoption agency began as a family project, financed almost entirely by the wealth Harry and Bertha had accrued through their lumber business. They developed principles of temporary child care that continue to be effective models today.

But in the midst of this work, Harry died in 1964. Many thought that without Harry the Holt agency simply should fold up.

But Grandma said, “This work was always God’s work. If he wants it to continue, it will.” It was a simple statement of her unshakable faith in God that was a vital part of Holt International’s growth into a world-renowned agency.

Holt International Children’s Services and a network of partner agencies have served children and families in many countries, including Bangladesh, Belarus, Bolivia, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, India, Korea, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Philippines, Romania, Russia, Taiwan, Thailand, Ukraine and Vietnam.

When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Grandma Holt said “as that lady who loved the Lord.”

“My earnest desire is that everyone who has heard me speak will be with me when we are gathered together in heaven to sing praises to our Savior,” she wrote in a statement to be released upon her death. “That every one of you, though you are unworthy as I am, will be washed clean of our sins by the blood of our Savior and forgiven.”

Jesus death, the grandmother of 22 and great-grandmother of 12 wrote, “opened the way for us to be forgiven, so by believing this and accepting Him as our Savior we can be forgiven and inherit eternal life with Him.”

Condolences can be sent to the Holt family c/o Holt, 1195 City View, Eugene OR 97402. Grandma Holt requested gifts be made to Holt International Children’s Services on behalf of homeless children. The agency’s Internet site is www.adopteegathering.com.