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Bertha Holt’s Legacy of Love: Thoughts and Memories of Grandma

When Bertha Holt — affectionately known as “Grandma Holt” — passed away at age 96 on July 24, 2000, she left behind a legacy of love, faithfulness and tireless advocacy for orphaned and vulnerable children around the world. 

Bertha Holt, co-founder of Holt International, accomplished many things throughout her life. 

bertha holt running at hayward field eugene oregon
Bertha running in the 1996 Hayward Classic, where she went on to set a world record!

In 1955, she successfully lobbied for the passing of the “Holt Adoption Bill” through Congress, allowing her and her husband, Harry, to adopt eight children from Korea and paving the way for thousands of children around the world to join families through international adoption. She was named the 1966 National Mother of the Year and in 1995, became the only non-Korean to receive the Korea National Merit Award.

An avid runner, she even set a world record for the 400 meter race in the over-90 age group at the 1996 Hayward Classic — wearing shoes donated by Nike!

But most importantly, she touched the lives of every person she met through her genuine love and compassion for the people around her — most especially, children. 

Bertha’s leadership still guides Holt’s model of service to children today. We strive to uphold Bertha’s ethics, up-front and honest practices, and ongoing support to adoptive families and children. As an organization, we never want to forget our history, and the remarkable vision of Harry and Bertha. Below, read thoughts and memories from those who knew Bertha and were impacted by her incredible work for children and families. For learn more about Bertha’s life and work, read her obituary on The New York Times website.

The excerpts below are from a tribute to Bertha Holt originally published in the Fall 2000 edition of Holt International Families magazine.

John Aeby, former Communications Director at Holt

“’The lady who loved the Lord.’

That’s how Grandma Holt wished to be remembered.

And if you knew Grandma, you knew she loved God. She loves the Lord with warm genuine devotion. She prayed and read her Bible with much more than discipline… she had a heart of faithfulness.

Everything she did in life flowed out of her love for God. Her boundless energy seemed to have an endless, divine source. And this same boundless energy provided springs of love that Grandma lavished on everyone she met. …

It seems only fitting that her passing from life would also be filled with love for God and love for people.” — John Aeby, former Communications Director at Holt

Bertha Holt's headshot photo

Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady of the United States

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Bertha Holt, a great champion of the world’s most vulnerable children. I worked with Holt International Children’s Services many times over the years and was always impressed by Bertha’s devotion to children, her belief in the power of a loving home, and her deep commitment to adoption.

A true pioneer, she dedicated a lifetime to breaking down barriers to adoption around the world. Her family’s adoption of eight Korean children in 1955 inspired countless Americans to follow their example. She fought to make it easier for parents to adopt needy children from abroad. And she championed the idea that love and a safe, permanent home could transcend differences of nationality, race and ethnic background. Her extraordinary work transformed the lives of generations of children and families.

The most fitting tribute we can pay this exceptional woman is to build on her commitment to adoption and to the millions of children still in need of permanent homes around the world.” — Hillary Rodham Clinton, former First Lady of the United States

Hee-ho Lee, former First Lady of the Republic of Korea

“I am deeply saddened at the passing of Mrs. Bertha Holt. 

Bertha and her daughter, Molly, taking part in a Korean honor ceremony.

I have most respected Mrs. Holt for her lifetime devotion to breaking down the prejudice behind adoption and for her act of sincere love and affection towards children around the world. Indeed, she was a true “Grandma” to the world’s unfortunate children.

Her tie to Korea was particularly special, beginning with an adoption of eight Korean orphans in 1955, leading to the founding of Holt International Children’s Services in 1956. Since then, she has helped enable the adoption of more than 200,00 orphans in the world, including many Koreans. In light of her contribution the Korean people will forever remember her with a sense of abiding appreciation and admiration.

I am praying for the repose of her soul. I wish to extend to you and your bereaved family most sincere condolences and deepest sympathy.” — Lee Hee-ho, former First Lady of the Republic of Korea

An Adoptee Goodbye to Grandma by Susan Soonkeum Cox, former Vice President of Public Relations & Policy at Holt

Editor’s note: The following is the text of a speech given by Susan Soonkeum Cox at Grandma’s memorial service in Eugene in 2000.

I have struggled to find words that are worth of Grandma Holt and have felt the importance of getting it right for the thousands of adoptees who call her Grandma.

Mrs. Holt made it clear in her instructions that we were not to make a fuss over her. The word “eulogy” was strictly forbidden. So Grandma, this is not a fuss, it is certainly not a eulogy — it is simply the truth.

You might think that since there are so many of us, that it would be difficult for individuals to have much of a personal connection to Grandma. Instead, it seemed as our numbers grew, so did Grandma’s capacity to love us all.

Bertha Holt was an incredible woman. In many ways, she was ahead of her time. Mrs. Holt was all the wonderful things that have been said of her, including a loving wife, mother and grandmother.

And she was “Grandma Holt.”

Bertha with Susan Soonkeum Cox on Susan’s wedding day.

Grandma holds that honored status in the lives of literally tens of thousands of adoptees and their families around the world. You might think that since there are so many of us, that it would be difficult for individuals to have much of a personal connection to Grandma. Instead, it seemed as our numbers grew, so did Grandma’s capacity to love us all. It was her great gift to make each one of us feel precious.

This last week when Grandma was sick, adoptive families wrote eloquently of her importance to them. Across time zones and country codes, adult adoptees were contacting one another — talking, emailing, writing — sharing with each other their own personal stories about Grandma. Many said, “I have never met Grandma Holt in person, but I feel she is truly my Grandma.” Others said, “I am not adopted from Holt, but I still consider her my Grandma.”

As we whispered, worried and tried to reassure one another, we examined both privately and out loud, what is this connection that we have to this woman — whom some of us have never seen face to face? How can this connection by so powerful? So profound? So incredibly treasured?

We have our own grandmothers who came to us through adoption. We love them as our “real” grandmothers — just as we love our adoptive mothers and fathers who are our “real” parents.

Those of us who love Bertha Holt — especially those who know her as “Grandma” — must keep her spirit and vision alive for future generations of children and their families. We must remember her to our children, and grandchildren.

Perhaps our connection to Grandma is so deeply held because in our hearts, we know she was at the center of how it came to be that we have our parents and grandparents, who love us as their own. Grandma was part of the vision that would bring us to our families. She was part of God’s destiny for each of our lives.

Like so many of Grandma’s adoptees, I have had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of her letters and cards in response to a graduation, wedding or birth announcement. Until the last few years, she answered them all personally in her distinct and beautiful cursive. They have given me a heart full of memories to treasure and hold close. I am especially grateful for them now.

And then I think of all the adoptees who are too young to remember Grandma Holt, and the generations of adoptees who are still to come to families in the future… How will they know the spirit and soul and vision of this woman to be treasured?

It is too great a gift to be lost.

Those of us who love Bertha Holt — especially those who know her as “Grandma” — must keep her spirit and vision alive for future generations of children and their families. We must remember her to our children, and grandchildren. To tell the story of this woman who loved the Lord with such faith, that when He said “bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth” she simply said, “I will.”

As word spread that Grandma had died, the world stood still. The sense of loss among adoptees and families was profound. An adoptee said to me, “She was 96 years old. I knew she would not live forever — but I feel lost, like I have become a little child again.” And I knew how he felt. The constant that has always been, is gone from us. But we are still here.

We are Grandma’s legacy. And we must share her spirit and hope and love for homeless children throughout our lives and pass it on to our children, and grandchildren.

Today there are adult adoptees from across the country who made the pilgrimage to pay tribute to Grandma. To thank her, to say goodbye. We are joined in spirit and prayer by adoptees and their families all over the world.

A grateful “Thank you” to Mrs. Holt’s children… To Molly, Barbara, Suzanne, Linda, Robert, Helen, Paul, Christine, Mary, Betty, and to their sons and daughters for graciously sharing Grandma all these years. There must have been times that it wasn’t easy, and your generous spirit has not gone unnoticed, thank you.

We cannot yet imagine that we will not see Grandma in the office on Thursdays, share pictures of her travels, hear her joyful laughter, watch her check things off her to-do list, pose for pictures with families and a thousand other “grandma moments.” To learn to speak of Grandma in past tense. It seemed we would always have her.

Grandma said her greatest desire was that all her families would be with her in heaven. She is looking down on us now. That is why I feel compelled to say: “Grandma, as you requested, this is not a eulogy.” It was a feeble attempt to express how enriched and full our lives are, thanks to her beloved Grandma Holt.

Grandma, we promise you, our lives will be a monument to your devotion and dedication to His children… and we will never forget you.

children laughing and playing with colorful balloons

Learn more about Holt’s work and history!

At Holt International, we help children thrive in the love and stability of a family. But our services extend far beyond the adoption work we are known for.

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