A tribute to Bertha Holt on what would have been her 110th birthday.
In 1986, Bertha Holt published a book of personal journal entries, detailing Holt International’s beginnings and her husband, Harry’s, vision for the organization. In her own words, Bertha shares how she and Harry leaned on each other and on the Lord while they worked tirelessly to establish an organization that would bring thousands of orphaned and abandoned children into loving, permanent homes.
Last week, we celebrated what would have been Bertha M. Holt’s 110th birthday. We celebrate the humble, determined woman who fought for the world’s most vulnerable children, and we celebrate the woman who many adoptees came to know simply as “Grandma.”
We hope you enjoy reading this excerpt from Bertha Holt’s book, “Bring My Sons from Afar” – a publication we have rarely displayed online. It’s a privilege to share it with you today.
It must surely be true that in the beginning God created a plan to rescue the Amerasian children of the Korean conflict in the early 1950s. They were considered the outcasts of society.
But God did not forsake them; He made a plan to save them. He could have directed angles to accomplish it, or have done it Himself, but He chose to pursue men to carry out His plan.
I think, if I had been God, I would have chosen a noted pediatrician, a wealthy philanthropist, a wise lawyer, or a minister of the gospel, to carry out the mission. But God knew who would answer “Here am I: send me.” (Isaiah 6:8) So He chose a fifty-year-old farmer weakened by a long scar on his heart.
Harry Holt, my husband, had been successful in the sawmill business, but following his heart attack in 1950, he returned to farming. That year, when this story began, he had six children: Stewart, 16; Wanda, 15; Molly, 14; Barbara, 13; Suzanne, 6; and Linda, 3. We lived in a six-bedroom house three miles outside of Creswell, Oregon. Before his heart attack, Harry planned to start a big sawmill business in South America. But God had a different plan for him.
For six months in 1950, his life hung precariously in the balance. He stubbornly refused to go to the hospital except, after 13 weeks at home when embolisms developed in his veins, he needed anticoagulants. After two weeks, he returned home where I continued to care for him.
As he slowly recovered, he often told me he wanted to live so he could do something to show his appreciation for God’s goodness to him. He had been raised in a Christian family, but as his heart mended he studied the Bible with increasing interest. Certain friends visited each Sunday and he joyfully anticipated searching God’s Word with them, learning more and more about his Savior. I, too, was raised in a Christian family, but his heart attack became a growing experience in faith for each of us.
“If the Lord will let me have the strength I need, I will serve Him in whatever way He wanted,” Harry confided in me. “He has blessed me so much I want to show Him my love for Him.” So we began to pray that the Lord would open a way to serve Him.
He graduated from a wheelchair to a cane and very slowly gained strength. Eventually he sold the sawmill and bought farms and enjoyed again the smell of freshly plowed soil and growing grain.
In far-off Korea a bloody conflict had finished. I did not know exactly where it was. It was called Chosun when I studied geography.
Harry enjoyed planting grain with his tractor. The older girls irrigated the fields. Later, during hay fever season, Harry and I went with Suzanne and Linda to relax at our cabin at the coast. Wanda milked the cows, Molly raised pumpkins to help pay nursing school expenses and Barbara bought sheep. Stewart helped at the sawmill. We sill prayed that the Lord would lead us to a way to serve Him. It could be a humble work, something we knew how to do already.
On December 14, 1954, our family went to hear a talk by Dr. Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision. He told about the orphans in war-torn Korea and showed us the movie “Dead Men on Furlough.” He was raising money to feed and care for orphans in the devastated country. Harry and I were so overcome with the tragedies of the conflict, neither of us could forget those pictures night or day. They haunted us—those forlorn, emaciated children who were crowded into institutions where they were starving for love as much as for lack of food. We saw pictures of the children who were born from Korean mothers and United Nations soldiers. Because they resembled their Caucasian fathers, they were ostracized and often hidden by their mothers, or abandoned and taken to an orphanage. Some little blonde-haired babies were washed up on the seashore.
We began to sponsor several children, but that did not comfort me. Our house was so big, I wanted to adopt and share our home and God’s love with eight of them. Harry and I did not discuss this. I did not know Harry was thinking about them too, nor did he realize I was.
It was winter time and Harry was building a buggy to ride on the beach. He was still too weak to walk very far, and he needed a motor-driven small vehicle to ride to the jetty to fish. The three-wheeled buggy was small enough to put through the door, without wheels, so he brought it into the basement to work on, when he was strong enough. His progress was so slow, I thought he was too weak to accomplish anything. However, six months later he revealed to me the cause of his slow performance:
“It was like a dream, a vision, he said. “A little girl about two years old sat on the table in the corner by the window. She had almond-shaped eyes, full cheek and a winsome smile, blondish hair. She talked to me—not that I heard her voice—but I seemed to know what she said. Her mouth had a definite curve when she smiled, like I had never seen before. When she got down on the floor, she’d hide under the table, then come out enough to peek at me, with that winsome smile. Her eyes twinkled mischievously. I hammered and sawed, and tried to fit pieces into place on the buggy, but she was always there. I knew she really wasn’t, but when I returned, she came too. She didn’t change her looks, but sometimes she had different moods. I began to ask God what He wanted me to do for that certain girl. I told no one for fear they would think I was insane. But surely, God was telling me something. I asked Him to explain it.”
The weeks and months passed. I planned where we could put eight cribs, how to extend the table, how to make the garden bigger, and how I could divide the work so everyone could help.
But ours was a Christian family. Harry should be the first to think of it. So I prayed that if God wanted us to have eight more children, He would give that desire to him. Meanwhile, Harry was trying to get enough courage to tell me.
The 1955 spring had come. Harry was plowing each day and was exhausted at suppertime. One evening, as he prepared for bed, he said, “I would like to go to Korea.”
I was delighted. I encouraged him to go.
“I would like to bring home some Amerasian orphans who are ostracized.” I was even more pleased. When he let me know he wanted eight, I was overjoyed because I knew only God had planned this undertaking. Harry was shocked that I agreed so suddenly to his plan, but he never knew until I wrote in my book The Seed from the East that God had prepared us both to do it at the same time.
Senator Neuberger and Representative Edith Green presented bills to Congress in Washington, which allowed us to get visas for eight children. Originally a private bill takes two or three years to pass, but God hurried it through in less than two months.
Meanwhile, Harry went to Korea. He stopped overnight in Tokyo where he stayed in the Imperial Hotel. Having jet lag, he awoke at 2:00 A.M and tried unsuccessfully to sleep. He wondered if he should go south to Taegu where our sponsored children lived, or should he first look in Seoul. Back home, he had learned what people were saying behind his back – that the reason he decided to adopt eight children was because he wanted his name in the paper. Though he knew was doing it only because God sent him, still he hurt and needed the Lord’s comforting assurance. Then he prayed that God would answer his questions out of His Word. He searched over to his bedside table and picked up the Gideon Bible. In the darkness he thumbed through it and put in his finger and turned on the light. His thumb was on Isaiah 43:5, “Fear not for I am with thee.” At that moment he was assured that it was not Harry Holt, it was the Lord Himself who was doing this. He wept for joy, and then read two more verses. “I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; I will to the north, give up; and the south, keep not back: bring my sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; even everyone who is called by my name, for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him, yea, I have made him.” (Isaiah 43:5-7)
He knew Isaiah had written this 712 years before the Lord Jesus was born. It was a prediction that God would eventually bring the Israelites back to Israel, but that night it was his instructions. God promised he would bring our eight children to our home in the western hemisphere.
A tribute written by Holt’s late director of communications, John Aeby, in February of 2009
People who knew Bertha Holt often mention her energy and pace of life. A brisk walk wasn’t fast enough for all she had to do in her day; she ran nearly everywhere she went. News media sometimes referred to her as “the jogging grandma,” and even in her 90s, she was still trotting down the lane near her little house in Creswell, Oregon, or around the track at the local middle school. To this day, if you know what you’re looking for, you can see the distance markers she set out alongside Gibson Lane.
But of course, she was so much more than running and energy.
She and her husband Harry founded Holt International because they believed that children should have mothers and fathers of their own. It was simply a matter of obedience to God to pursue an opportunity He set before them. Of course, few people would have recognized this as an opportunity, only the many formidable obstacles that lay in the way of such an idea.
Later on Bertha’s faith helped lead this organization through difficult times. When her husband, Harry, died of a heart attack in 1964, many people assumed that the Holt program would simply close up. But Bertha said, “From the beginning this has been God’s work. If He wants it to continue, it will.” She had a remarkable way of bringing complex issues down to a simple choice to follow God and trust Him for the results.
She adored the children in Holt programs around the world, and she relished every chance to be with the wonderful blend of people represented by Holt adoptive families. Whenever families asked to photograph their adopted children with her, she would include the birth children as well.
Bertha held a special place in her heart for waiting children — those with disabilities or medical conditions and those who were older or siblings. She spent many months every year at the Holt Ilsan Center where over 300 disabled residents live and strive to develop the skills for living. To them, Bertha wasn’t just a symbolic grandma; she was their halmoni, grandmother.
On New Years Day, according to Korean tradition, people traveled to the home of their elders to perform a formal bow called a sebae. At Ilsan the residents would come to Bertha at her daughter Molly’s house.
I recall watching as one resident with severely spastic cerebral palsy struggled with tremendous effort and concentration to come to Bertha. In response and with a beautiful gesture of honoring this herculean effort, Grandma stood to acknowledge the bow.
Bertha passed away in July 2000. But her presence remains strong at Holt International. Her legacy continues: faith in God and love for children.
Happy Birthday, Grandma!