In Memory of David Kim

A celebration of David’s life will take place at the Faith Center in Eugene, Oregon, on February 24, from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested to please make donations to Holt International. Your gift will be used to help children with urgent needs that might otherwise go unmet, especially children with special needs as that was a cause close to David’s heart. For hotel information for February 23 and 24, please scroll to the bottom. If you would like to share memories or photos of David Kim, please email them to [email protected]

Dr. David Hyungbok Kim, who alongside Harry and Bertha Holt pioneered the modern practice of international adoption, died on Jan. 25, 2018, in Eugene, Oregon. He was 86 years old.

With a deep Christian faith, David devoted his life to advocating for orphaned and homeless children around the world. It was the suffering of children that David witnessed during his early days working for Harry Holt in post-war Korea that in many ways shaped the course of his life and career.

David was born in 1931 to a Presbyterian minister in Longjing, Manchuria, a region that is today a part of northeast China. His grandfather had come to Manchuria to share Christianity, sent by the Canadian Presbytery as the first Christian missionary from Korea. His family lived there until the Cultural Revolution, where rising religious persecution brought the threat of imprisonment and death. David and his family escaped with just what they could carry, traveling through North Korea, to settle a few months later in Seoul, South Korea.

Their respite was short lived, with the start of the Korean War in 1950. During the war, David’s father was imprisoned by the communists because of his faith. His father succumbed to the injuries he suffered, and suddenly David became the head of the household, the sole support for his mother and five younger siblings. He worked any job that he could find, while at the same time studying for the college entrance exam. Determined to ensure a better future for his siblings, he worked tirelessly to put all of his siblings through school, including college. David was accepted into Seoul National University, the most prestigious in Korea, and in 1959, he received his degree from the Teacher’s College.

In 1955, Harry and Bertha Holt attracted national attention after they adopted eight Korean War orphans. When Harry returned to Korea in 1956 to help the thousands of children still in need of homes, he hired David as his first employee, despite the objections of many in the Western missionary community. Harry soon came to regard David as a brother in faith and, recognizing David’s skills, entrusted him to lead the Holt Adoption Program, making him the first Korean to head a U.S. charity. David was just 25 years old. As head of the Holt Adoption Program, David would go on to oversee the adoption of thousands upon thousands of orphaned Korean children into families in the U.S.

He became the first legal guardian to the children who were brought to the orphanage, which authorized him to sign immigration and adoption documents on their behalf. As the majority of those who came into care were abandoned, or otherwise without any identifying information, they were given David’s surname as he was now their legal guardian. David’s wife, Nancy, recalled one evening when they were newly engaged, he told her that he was the legal guardian to over 2,500 babies to be adopted by American families.

Many Korean adoptees only briefly carried the “Kim” name, replacing it with the American surname of their adoptive families once home in the U.S. To David Kim, this name change symbolized the revolution that he championed throughout his life: a revolution in the concept, color and composition of family.

David saw his role as the children’s guardian as more than just a legal title. He provided them care, changed their diapers, comforted and carried them when they were ill, gave many haircuts, and provided the older children instruction and guidance. He personally escorted hundreds of children by chartered flight to their adoptive families in the U.S. He often joked about the number of diapers he changed on what was then a more than 40-hour journey from Seoul, Korea, to Portland, Oregon. With almost 60-100 children to a plane, and with little or no rest, he fed, changed and comforted the children, many who were weak and ill.

Throughout his life, David reflected on a conversation he had with Harry Holt in Korea that had a particularly strong impact on him. As they stood praying over the freshly dug graves of children who did not survive, Harry posed a question that rang in David’s ears the remainder of his life. He titled his memoir based on Harry’s haunting question, “Who Will Answer?”David Kim

“After the prayer, Mr. Holt looked me straight in eye, and asked, ‘Brother Kim, who will answer for these children when we stand before God?’” David wrote in his memoir. “Silence prevailed as we searched for an answer. After a few minutes Elder Lee and I shoveled frozen dirt onto the little coffin. There were no words from any of us, even after we arrived back at the center. The question stayed in my thoughts for the next several days. What would be my answer when I stood before God? It made me think of the responsibility that I bore for every baby who died under our care.”

During the 1960s in Korea, he pioneered the de-institutionalization of children and the placement of these children into foster families, creating a model for children in care that has been recognized as a best practice model by UNICEF, and has been studied and replicated throughout the world. His vision ensured that the children not adopted, because of disability or for whatever reason, would not be forgotten and turned away. He searched for three years to find a suitable site on which to build a permanent facility for these children. He found the site at Ilsan, which has become community, home and family to hundreds of disabled residents, some of whom have lived there for their entire lives.

It was in those years that David met his wife, Nancy, in Seoul, and in 1960 they married. Two sons, Paul Sungbae and John Hyunbae, followed. Their third son, Andrew Inbae, was born in Eugene, Oregon. As they built their own family, David continued to work tirelessly to bring homeless children into loving families through adoption. David and Nancy would open their home to older adoptees who were having difficulties in their initial adoption placement, refusing to send them back to Korea, and cared for them alongside their own children until a permanent adoptive family could be found.

As the Holt Adoption Program grew, so did David’s recognition that to successfully lead this international organization, he needed to acquire professional knowledge. He applied to the Master of Social Work program at Portland State University, and in 1963 was accepted with a full scholarship. David traveled alone to the United States first, and supported himself by working as a gardener. Once he became more established, he brought his wife and two young children. They lived in an apartment at the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Portland, serving as the church caretaker. He was also hired as a social worker during the summers by the Multnomah County Children’s Services Department.

In April 1964, while David was studying in the United States, Harry Holt died of a sudden heart attack in Korea. Many wondered if the Holt Adoption Program would continue.

David was torn, and was prepared to return to Korea to carry on Harry’s work. But after meeting with Harry’s wife, Bertha, and brother Phillip, David decided that he should stay and complete his education for the future of the organization. In 1965, he earned a master’s degree in social work from Portland State University, and thereafter was hired by Holt as Associate Director at the office in Creswell, Oregon.

From 1980 to 1990, David served as Executive Director of Holt International, and after his retirement he continued to serve as President Emeritus and lifetime member of the Holt Board of Directors. He remained active with the organization, serving as an ambassador at large, an advocate for children, a fundraiser and a mentor. In 1982, he was conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity from Northwest Christian College, which he playfully described as a “D.D., a Doctor of Divinity and Diapers.”

David worked alongside Bertha to mature the Holt Adoption Program into Holt International, the leading global child welfare, family preservation and adoption organization in the world.

He expanded Holt’s work to many other countries around the world, including Vietnam, India, Thailand, China, the Philippines, Mongolia and North Korea.

He always made time to listen to adoptees and adoptive families, and from his conversations with them, realized that there was a great need within this community for answers to questions that arose in their lives concerning their birth heritage. To address this need, he conceived of the first “Motherland Tours” to Korea for Korean adoptees, and in 1975 led the very first tour. He personally led all of the tours for many years, and established a fundamental change in social work practice. Today, many other organizations and agencies offer similar programs, enabling thousands of adoptees and adoptive families to benefit from his insight.

As the success of the tours became manifest, he also saw a need among younger adoptees in developing a sense of self and pride in their birth heritage. As a result, he established the Holt Heritage Camps. Originally, the majority of camp participants were Korean adoptees, but today this has expanded significantly to include adoptees from all countries served by Holt.

When nations gathered in the early 1990s to draft The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, David stood up to fiercely defend every child’s right to a family, and guided the delegates assembled from 66 nations. His impassioned eloquence resulted in a preamble that clearly states that children need parents of their own, and that adoption is the best solution for children who cannot remain with their birth families.

But what most struck those who met David was his compassion and humility. He was never one to bring attention to his accomplishments, instead giving credit to those he worked with. He was always self-sacrificing, believing that every penny possible should be used for the children and nothing else. Whenever he traveled overseas, instead of staying in a fancy hotel, he would stay at a guesthouse at the orphanage he was visiting, or at the local YMCA, always in very humble quarters. He truly believed that he and Holt staff were the stewards of the gifts that the organization received, and that they were privileged and entrusted by God to fulfill this mission.

However, his accomplishments did not go unnoticed. Throughout his career, he was honored by universities, international organizations, and the governments of many nations. Most notably, he was an honoree and recipient of the 2001 Kellogg’s Humanitarian Award, and in 2005, he was awarded the Civil Order of Merit by the Government of the Republic of Korea, the highest civilian award that can be conferred by the Korean government. But for David Kim, the greatest honor of his life was seeing the outcome of all that he had worked for, of meeting adoptees, now grown, and with families, lives and achievements of their own.

During his final speech before the Holt International staff in Eugene, in September 2017, David offered a reminder.

“We are all the bearers of the torch that was lit 62 years ago,” he said. “Don’t forget, we did not create this. We are just bearers of the torch that was lit by Harry Holt, and we carry that. We have to carry that successfully without having it extinguish. That is, to try to find homes for these homeless children. That’s what Harry’s heart was set on, finding homes for the homeless children.”

David Kim is survived by his wife Nancy; his three sons, Paul Sungbae Kim (Beth Keech), John Hyunbae (Julie) Kim, and Andrew Inbae Kim (Catt Rosa); his six grandchildren, Maya, Jonah, Christopher, Naomi, Elijah and Soria; and the thousands of adopted children whose lives he so profoundly touched.

A celebration of David’s life will take place at the Faith Center on February 24, from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested to please make donations to Holt International. Your gift will be used to help children with urgent needs that might otherwise go unmet, especially children with special needs as that was a cause close to David’s heart.

If you are traveling to Eugene for David’s celebration of life, these hotels have extended special rates for the nights of February 23 and/or 24.  Reservations can be made online using the links below or by calling the hotel and requesting Holt International’s corporate rate.

Valley River Inn

1000 Valley River Way

Eugene OR  97401

(541) 743-1000

Residence Inn by Marriott

25 Country Club Rd

Eugene OR  97401


Hyatt Place

333 Oakway Center

Eugene  OR  97401

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