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Bertha Holt; Pioneered International Adoptions


Bertha Holt, who with her late husband, Harry, pioneered international adoption in 1955 after seeing a television documentary on Korean War orphans, has died at the age of 96.

Holt, known affectionately as "Grandma" to generations of children whose adoption she facilitated, died Monday in her home in Creswell, Ore. She had suffered a stroke July 24, shortly after completing her daily 1.5-mile walk.

"The orphans were dying on the streets," Holt recalled 40 years after she first saw the film footage that set her life course.

Holt and her husband adopted eight orphans and cofounded Holt International Children's Services, now based in Eugene, Ore.

Holt, who took over the agency after the death of her husband in 1964, traveled to South Korea more than 100 times, visited 55 other countries and flew as many as 100,000 miles a year, arranging homes for tens of thousands of children.

She remained active in the organization until her stroke, putting in at least a day a week in the office and serving as a board member.

"All children are beautiful when they are loved," the deeply religious Holt preached throughout her long life. She insisted that the agency place mentally and physically handicapped orphans as well as Amerasian children, who were often the offspring of American servicemen stationed in South Korea.

The Holts were already parents of six children, ages 9 to 21, when they decided to adopt eight Korean-born Amerasian orphans, ages 8 months to 3 years, 45 years ago.

Although there were occasional international adoptions after World War II, in the 1950s they remained all but legally impossible to accomplish and countered the prevailing theory that adoptive children should be matched with parents of the same race, ethnicity and culture.

Told that adopting Korean War orphans would take an act of Congress, Bertha Holt began writing to legislators. Within two months, they had the necessary new law. The Holts adopted their Korean children in 1955 and a year later established their agency to help other families do the same.

Holt wrote several books about her experiences, including "Seed From the East" and "Outstretched Arms" in 1956, "Created for God's Glory" in 1982 and "Bring My Sons From Afar" in 1986.

Born in Des Moines, Holt was educated in nursing at the University of Iowa in that city and worked as a private duty nurse before her marriage in 1927. She helped her husband run a farm in South Dakota and later a sawmill in Oregon.

Until near the end of her life, Holt rose daily at 4:45 a.m., read the Bible and went for her morning walk and run. In 1996, she set a world record for her age group in the 440-meter run at the Hayward Masters Classic in Eugene. At age 94, she went to Thailand and rode a water buffalo.

Among Holt's many awards were an America Award (described as "the Nobel Prize for Goodness") from the Positive Thinking Foundation, America's Mother of the Year Award, two civil merit awards from South Korea, the Decade of the Child Medallion from the Philippines and the Kiwanis World Service Medal.

She is survived by 10 of her 14 children, three sisters and one brother, 22 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.

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