When Larry Gray, one of the first Holt adoptees, attended a Holt photo exhibit in Washington D.C. in November 2013, he was amazed to find a photo of himself as a child in Korea — the only photo he had ever seen of himself before he was adopted at age 5. Little did he know something even bigger was in store.
Two years ago, two Holt adoptees walked into a photo exhibit on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. to see a very special collection of photos.
Adoptees Larry Gray and Kim Lindenbaum were hoping to see a photo, or read a caption, or make a connection with someone — anything that would help them know more about their past. Larry and Kim are among the first generation of adoptees from Korea who joined families in the U.S. through Holt International. In November 2013, 57 years later, they came together at this photo exhibit documenting life for children left orphaned or abandoned in the wake of the Korean War, as well as the humble beginnings of Holt International.
“I was number 112 in line to be adopted,” Larry says later, from an RV park in Arizona where he and his wife, Rhonda, spend their winters. His friend Kim was adopted shortly after, which they determined after learning that her number, 66a, corresponded with the identification process used by Holt a little later on.
As they walked through the room in D.C., they looked at the black and white photos along the walls — photos of infants being fed by caregivers, children playing at the Ilsan Center, and adoptive families meeting their son or daughter for the first time. Larry was browsing the photos, taking in all of the images as rare glimpses into his childhood, when his wife came up to him — excited about one of the photos.
“I think I found you!” she exclaimed.
Larry was deep in conversation with someone, and Rhonda had to try to get his attention three times before he turned around. But when he did, the tears began to flow. He immediately recognized the child in the photo as himself — it was the same face he had seen on his earliest passport photo. This photo — of a young boy looking straight at the camera, standing in white shorts among a group of other children — was the only picture he had ever seen of himself in Korea.
Larry says that this photo was probably taken when he first arrived at the orphanage. “From what I understand, Mrs. Holt always had a camera on her neck,” he says. Perhaps she was the one who took the photo of him as a child. There was also a second photo of Larry in the exhibit, within a collage of photos of other adoptees, which he assumes was submitted by his adoptive parents when he was in grade school.
Growing up, Larry didn’t know many details about his adoption or life in Korea. His adoptive father passed away when he was 15 and his mother when he was 20, so Larry never had the chance to ask them some of the questions he had. He knew he was adopted at 5 years old — common at the time as most of the children joining families through international adoption were older. He was supposed to have arrived home in December of 1956, but he came down with the mumps and instead made the flight to the U.S. to join his adoptive family in March of 1957.
Most of this information he gathered from the book “Who Will Answer” by Holt President Emeritus Dr. David Kim. In 1956, 25-year-old Dr. Kim was the first employee Harry Holt hired to manage Holt’s first adoption program in South Korea.
In chapter nine of the book, Larry read that the second Holt flight bringing children from Korea to the U.S. in March of 1957 lined up with the date that he came home to his family.
“It’s an adventure,” Larry says. “Every nuance that you find is something new.” Seeing pictures of himself at the historical photo exhibit was a wonderful way to learn more about his past. Little did he know that an even greater opportunity was in store.
While at this event, Larry met David Kim’s son, Paul, now Holt’s director of programs for Korea and Mongolia. Meeting Paul, Larry made an unexpected connection — learning that Paul’s father, David, actually accompanied the children who flew from Korea to the United States in March of 1957. This was the same flight that 5-year-old Larry took to join his family nearly 60 years ago!
Putting the pieces together, Larry also made another meaningful connection.
In his role as manager of the Holt adoption program, Dr. Kim oversaw the adoption of thousands of orphaned and abandoned children in the 1950s and early 60s. Instrumental in developing the early process of international adoption, he also sought ways to expedite the adoption of the many weak and malnourished children in Holt care. To that end, he became the children’s first legal guardian when they first came into Holt care, a move that authorized him to sign immigration and adoption documents, attaching his name to theirs.
This means that not only were Larry and Dr. Kim on the same flight, but for a short and very crucial time, Dr. Kim was Larry’s legal guardian and in a sense, his family.
After meeting Dr. Kim’s son, Paul, Larry had a deep desire to meet this man who played such an important part in his life. So he accepted Paul’s invitation to meet Dr. Kim later that year in Eugene, Oregon. Larry and Rhonda took the northern route in their RV to get from Michigan to their winter home in Arizona and along the way they made one very important and anticipated stop at Holt’s headquarters in Eugene, Oregon.
Here, for the second time in his life, Larry would meet Dr. Kim. The reunion occurred after getting a tour through the Holt office. Larry’s wife, Rhonda, remembers the moment well.
“We walked into Paul’s office and there was Dr. Kim,” Rhonda says. “Larry was overtaken with emotion and reached out to Dr. Kim for a hug and said to him ‘It is nice to see you again,’ — the tears were flowing.”
While Larry didn’t have any memory of Dr. Kim from his childhood, he felt an inexplicable connection to him. With Dr. Kim, Larry shared about the little memory he had of Korea, about his adoptive family and about his restaurant in Michigan.
Larry expressed to Dr. Kim how grateful he was and how meaningful it was to meet him. Without Dr. Kim’s passion to help children find loving, permanent families, Larry says his life would have been much different.
After he united with his adoptive family at the age of 5, Larry thrived with their love and support. Although an only child, Larry had a large extended family and was among the youngest of a large bunch of cousins. Each year, his family would travel to Canada and have a big family reunion with his ten uncles and aunts and their families. He began working in the food service industry when he was in high school, which he continued to pursue throughout his life. Twenty years ago, Larry accomplished his dream of opening a restaurant with his wife in National City, Michigan.
“It was a little dive called Chef’s Table,” he says. “A little mom and pop restaurant with homemade pies and cloth tablecloths — we met a lot of great people.” Today, Larry and his wife still live in Michigan, but they are retired from their restaurant and during the winter they move to Yuma, Arizona where they enjoy the warm weather and serve as activity coordinators in their RV park. They have four children and seven grandchildren.
Dr. Kim is now in his 80s, and he still visits Holt’s staff from time to time to share guidance and wisdom and to join in celebrations. Every so often, he also receives special visits from early adoptees. This reunion with Larry was particularly meaningful for Dr. Kim. Although that Flying Tiger airlines flight from Korea was nearly 60 years ago, he remembers it well because it was also his first flight from Korea to the United States. As they spoke, Dr. Kim was deeply moved to meet one of the many children he had helped to place in a loving family.
And he even thinks he remembers Larry, who at the time was a 5-year-old and stood out among the other infants and toddlers.
“For my father,” says Paul Kim, “it was affirmation that what he had helped to start so many years ago with Harry Holt was the right thing for the children.”
Throughout Holt International’s 60-year history, this has always been the utmost priority — to do the right thing for the children. This legacy began in Korea for children who were orphaned and abandoned and in need of a loving family — children like Larry Gray — and continues today in countries around the world.
When Larry got to meet Dr. Kim, it was as if this whole process came full circle. Although the circumstances that rendered children available for adoption were often traumatic — involving heartache and loss — adoption was, and still is, a beautiful and redemptive response. Because of Harry and Bertha Holt and Dr. Kim, thousands of children have had the chance to thrive in a loving, permanent family. And Larry Gray was one of the first.
And nearly 60 years later, when Larry got to meet the man who had so drastically changed his life, he said, “Thank you.”
“I thanked him again for his hard work,” Larry says. “He dedicated his life to the orphans — it was really amazing.”
Megan Herriott | Staff Writer
Stay tuned for more information about another historical Holt photo exhibit in Washington D.C. in fall 2016 to celebrate Holt’s 60th anniversary!