The Legacy of Bertha "Grandma" Holt

The Grandma Who Changed The World
Rounding a turn on a country road a few miles from the little town of Creswell, OR, it’s easy to drive past the home of Bertha Holt. Just a simple farm house, rather old, very small—it’s hard to believe that a person who has changed the world lived there. Political leaders and royalty around the world have honored Bertha Holt and given her elegant gifts, but the gifts she wore daily were the multicolored bead rings made by grandchildren.

Bertha Holt exemplified unpretentiousness and practicality, yet, in her unassuming way, she brought about profound change affecting millions of people. She never set out to change the world, but her example and simple convictions moved nations. Generations of adopted children represent the product of her simple act of obeying God’s leading in her life. To homeless children and adoptive families around the world she was simply “Grandma Holt.”
She was also known as the “jogging Grandma” for her running a mile nearly every day. In 1996 she even set (and may still hold) the world record for the 400 meter run in her age category. She was on her daily exercise walk when she suffered a stroke on the morning of July 24.

She also was known for her practice of daily Bible reading and prayer. She maintained the daily discipline of reading through the Bible every year. In addition she prayed for a long list of children, family and organizational needs everyday.

Grandma was never daunted by projects of any size. Whether it was getting copies of photos to send to a family or getting legislation passed, she took them on one task at a time.
Back to the top

Bertha Holt’s History
Bertha Marian Holt was born in Des Moines, Iowa, on Feb. 5, 1904, to Clifford and Eva Holt. She was the fourth of nine children in her family. Her father taught school and served as a postman. The family also operated their own market garden.

Bertha graduated from East High School and the University of Iowa, both in 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.

Harry and Bertha started their married lives together near Firesteel, S.D., where they “custom farmed.” Not yet owning land, they farmed land owned by others for a portion of the crops he raised. The couple lived in a “cook shack,” a very small house on wheels.

Often working together, Bertha recalled tossing sacks of wheat onto a truck even when she was seven months pregnant. In a few years they purchased their own land, and Harry built a house where their first four children were born.

But conditions worsened. Drought, dust storms and grasshoppers destroyed most of the farmers’ crops. With the Great Depression, farms all around began to fail. Harry maintained the family’s livelihood by adding a flour mill to his equipment. With his tractor he also mined lignite coal that lay a few feet below the surface of the ground. Bertha also earned some extra money by serving as a midwife. During the birth of one of their children, she instructed Harry on how to serve as her 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, Ore. 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.

Harry learned quickly, and using his tractor and castoff parts of old sawmills, he started his own lumber business. His trustworthy countenance and hardworking nature allowed him to harvest trees with only a promise to pay for them out of the sale of the lumber. His business prospered, and soon he owned a sawmill with 53 hired 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. The latter enabled them to own a large boat in which they toured the inland passage to Alaska. The trips to Alaska remain some of the family’s fondest memories.

But Harry’s determination and persistent hard work cost him dearly. In 1950 while considering the purchase of timber on a steep hillside, he was stricken with a severe heart attack. Harry and Bertha faced the reality that he would die.

As a nurse, Bertha understood Harry’s desperate condition. Alone one evening as she thought of the blood flowing through Harry’s arteries, she remembered the blood of Jesus Christ. The Son of God had died so that all who believe in Him could have everlasting life. Though they had grown up in the church, Harry and Bertha realized that they never truly had 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.
Back to the top

The Holts Adopt Eight Children From Korea
In December 1954 Harry and Bertha Holt saw a documentary film showing children in Korean orphanages following the Korean War. The Holts sent money to help clothe and feed them. But haunted by the children’s sad faces, Harry and Bertha came to an inspired realization: Those children needed families, and the Holts themselves could be the parents for some of those children.

Separately, they came to identical conclusions: they should adopt eight of the Korean children. A friend did a little research to see how they could go about accomplishing the adoption. 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. 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.

The Holts’ adoption was revolutionary. Intercountry adoption had been done previously, but it was virtually unheard of at that time. The social work establishment of that time discouraged it. The common practice was to carefully match children by color and background which helped conceal the adoption.

In contrast, the Holts’ openness showed the world that adoption is not a badge of shame but a sign of honor and love. Their 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.
Back to the top

The International Adoption Organization
While 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 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 which was a vital part of Holt International’s continuation. When she arrived at the Ilsan Center for Harry’s burial, her strength and faith lifted everyone around her. The staff and children turned to Grandma for the courage to go ahead.

Today Holt International Children’s Services and a network of “partner agencies” continue the Holts work in many countries. The Holt organization has grown into a world renowned agency, having 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, United States and Vietnam. Today Holt serves children in 12 of these countries.

“All children are beautiful when they’re loved,” said Bertha.

She and husband Harry built the Holt agency upon their belief that children need the love and belonging of a family. Through the years Grandma Holt and the Holt agency have made it their mission to help children to have permanent families, either by returning them to rehabilitated families or by placing them with adoptive families.

Their work has elevated the status of homeless and disabled children around the world.
Back to the top

Grandma Holt’s Legacy
Through the years Grandma’s leadership with Holt International Children’s Services has been characterized by a simple desire to follow God’s direction and dependence upon God’s provision. Though she has been comfortable allowing others to run the day-to-day work, her faith and prayers led Holt to grow and meet the needs of an increasing number of homeless children.

Always an advocate for homeless children, she worked to see them placed with permanent families. Grandma was especially concerned about children with special needs. She often provided personal help for the disabled children and adults at Holt’s Ilsan Center in Korea. She even helped design many of the buildings to meet their special needs.

Her love for children was expansive. At gatherings of Holt adoptive families, you’d see her including all children in the photos—birth children, adopted children. It didn’t matter.

When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Grandma Holt said “as that lady who loved the Lord.” Certainly her faith was her hallmark. But so was her passion for the needs of children. Her love that has changed the lives of children around the world, and today, thousands of adoptees enjoy the legacy of love that Bertha and her husband pioneered.
Back to the top

  Share Holt International with your friends. Like us on Facebook Follow Holt International on Twitter.
Sponsor a child
Help us share Holt International with others. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.
Gift of Hope



Holt International is a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. All donations are tax deductible to the full extent of the law. EIN: 23-7257390.