Fifty-two years later, an early Holt adoptee reunites with his “first father,” Holt President Emeritus David Kim.
by Robin Munro, Senior Writer
Over 50 years ago, in the aftermath of the Korean War, a young boy took his mother’s hand for the last time. Together they walked away from this boy’s childhood home – a one-room shack beside the Han River, a room he shared with his mother, his grandmother and his baby brother – toward the Holt childcare center outside of Seoul. On that day, this boy began a journey that would take him from South Korea all the way to Texas, where a new life awaited him in an adoptive family.
This past May, he traveled to the Holt headquarters in Eugene to revisit that journey.
“It’s just wonderful, man, just wonderful [to be here],” says our visitor as he stands in the lobby, studying photographs of the Holt family. He is Kim Joey Ko, a name that captures in each part a piece of his heritage – “Ko,” a Korean name given by his mother, “Joey” from his American GI father, and “Kim” from the man who accepted his small hand as his mother sought to give her son a better future.
That man is Dr. David Kim, President Emeritus of Holt International. He is also here today.
“Mr. Kim is a legend. He is a blessing to so many children,” says Ko, smiling reverently at the 80-year-old Korean man who in 1956, at the age of 25, Harry Holt entrusted to manage Holt’s first adoption program, in South Korea. In that role, Kim oversaw the adoption of thousands of orphaned and abandoned children. Instrumental in developing the early process of intercounry 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, a move that authorized him to sign immigration and adoption documents, attaching his name to theirs.
“I was so many children’s first father,” he says as one of those first children, now grown, stands beside him. Many of those children only briefly carried the Kim name, replacing it with the American name of their adoptive family once home in the U.S.
But Ko never took to the name his adoptive family gave him. For a good part of his life, he held onto the name Kim. He’s since pared it down to just Joey… Joey Ko.
Joey Ko’s journey began in 1958, when his mother relinquished him into Holt care. But his journey is forever intertwined with another journey – a journey depicted in photographs throughout the Holt building in Eugene. Moved by the images he saw of malnourished orphans, Harry Holt embarked on an historic voyage to Korea in post-war 1955. That year Harry and his wife, Bertha, urged an act of Congress enabling them to adopt eight Korean children, opening the door for thousands more. With this act, they began a revolution – a revolution in the concept, color and composition of family.
Three years later, Joey Ko became one of 600 Korean children adopted to the U.S. in 1958 by Holt International, then titled the Holt Adoption Program.
“I’m so thankful for the Holt organization,” he says today, 52 years later. “It gave me a new life.”
Ko is a joyful man. Tall and slender, his stance is stooped from a recent back injury. But when he laughs, he throws his whole body into it while still clutching his walker. After attending North Texas University on a scholarship to study music, he became a celebrated jazz trumpet player living in Hollywood, California. And like his “first father,” David Kim, he is a devout Christian.
“I’m glad I know Jesus,” he says, a little silver cross shining on the bill of his black cap. “I was angry at my mother for so many years. I didn’t know why she left me.” He says God urged him to forgive his mother for abandoning him.
Over the years, he’s come to not only forgive, but also understand his mother’s decision. “When you’re an African-American Korean in that time, you’re so rejected,” he says. In Korean society, a culture that places tremendous value on bloodline and great stigma on out-of-wedlock births, Ko’s foreign features and dark skin made him an easy target. He became an outcast, and regularly got into fights with other Korean children.
In David Kim’s memoir, Who Will Answer, he wrote of the discrimination “GI babies” experienced in post-war Korea. Even at the early Holt center in Seoul, children fell victim to disapproving eyes. “All day, people in the neighborhood stood outside the fence, like watching animals in the zoo, as if to say, ‘Seed of sin and shame,’” he wrote. “We tried everything to make them go away…”
In 1958, the Holt Adoption Agency relocated to a two and a half acre property outside of Seoul, a less populated area surrounded by rice paddies and fields. It was here that Ko’s mother relinquished her son – a place where he would receive loving, attentive care while awaiting adoption to the U.S.
Finding a permanent, loving family for all the children was then, as it is now, the ultimate goal. International adoption in particular seemed the best option for orphaned and abandoned children of mixed-race heritage in 1950s and 60s Korea. “I often prayed they would leave Korea as soon as possible, before the scar of discrimination was ingrained in their hearts,” Kim wrote.
His official age uncertain, Ko left Korea somewhere between the age of 6 and 8 – old enough to retain vivid memories of his early childhood. He was born in Inchon, but because his family viewed the birth of a mixed-race child as a dishonor, his mother and grandmother brought him to Seoul. They lived in poverty, marginalized from society. He remembers putting grasshoppers from the field in whiskey bottles – the main source of protein for his family. He remembers running away from the first orphanage where he stayed.
And he remembers the long walk with his mother to the Holt care center outside of Seoul.
“It was in the forest, way outside the city,” says Ko. “That’s where we met Dr. David Kim.” The young Holt director seemed surprised that Ko’s mother made the journey out to the care center, miles outside of Seoul.
“That was a very courageous act,” says Kim, remembering Ko’s mother. “She made a decision for him.” A decision that enabled Holt to find Ko an adoptive family in the U.S., unleashing waves of opportunity not available to him in Korea.
Here today, Ko stands surrounded by the family he’s created, including his son, who listens with rapt attention as Kim explains why the war produced so many “GI babies,” as well as the cultural pressures that compelled Ko’s mother to relinquish him for adoption.
“We don’t know his history,” says Ko’s son. “It’s very cut off.”
“We’re so glad you came here. We can offer a bridge,” responds Kim, whose own son and grandson have joined the group in the lobby. David Kim’s son, Paul, also works for Holt. Today, Paul holds his baby in his arms as he listens to Ko and Kim reminisce. The atmosphere is that of a family reunion, which seems fitting, as Holt caregivers become temporary family of children awaiting adoption in their care.
When Ko came into care, it was Harry Holt and his second oldest daughter, Molly, who embraced him into their family.
“You’ve got a picture of Molly? Let me see, let me see!” exclaims Ko, as we tour the Holt building. The crowd parts so he can see a picture of the young nurse holding a child in her arms. “Molly was very special,” says Ko. “She always looked after the little kids.”
Our tour guide informs Ko that Molly Holt still looks after the children at the Ilsan Center in Korea, where children never age out of care. Those not adopted, most of them disabled or with other special needs, live out their lives at the center near Molly’s residence on the Holt grounds. They call her unee… elder sister.
Though busy managing Holt’s growing program, David Kim also became a parental figure to the children in Holt care. “I gave the boys haircuts in my spare time,” he wrote in his memoir, “and often had the chore of spanking the boys who had misbehaved.”
“He was skinny,” Ko says, laughing, of Kim – a still slender man with warm eyes and a gentle expression, professorial in a tweed jacket and cap.
“You were always in my heart,” says Ko, more earnestly. “This is a very special man.”
“I’m an 80-year-old man!” exclaims Kim. “I’m lucky to see you before I die!”
As we pass the hallways lined with photos, Ko leans in to identify Harry. “Mr. Holt was just a gentleman,” Ko says of the man the children called aboji, or father. “We loved him. He was wonderful.” Ko remembers Harry feeding the children oatmeal, a foreign food that became a staple of their diets in Holt care. He remembers receiving his own treasured pair of shoes, which children often refused to take off at bedtime for fear of losing them. He remembers sliding down hills at the Holt care center, and sleeping in bunk beds. He also remembers the day he came to the U.S.
Holt staff would often take the children on field trips, he recalls. “Then they said, ‘We’re going to America.’ I thought it was another field trip,” says Ko, laughing. “I didn’t know it was permanent.” If Ko were adopted today, he would know; as children joining families through international adoption are increasingly older, Holt created a curriculum to prepare them before they come home. They study cultural differences, learn coping skills… and learn to say goodbye.
Ko never said a proper goodbye to Korea, a place he still hopes one day to visit.
“I came here on a miracle,” Ko says as he looks through records of his past – his picture in the paper, which announced his and his fellow adoptees’ arrival in Texas, and a picture of when he came into care. In this photo, he wears the same glowing smile as he wears today. He bears no apparent scars of discrimination, as Kim had so feared for the mixed-race children in Korea. But he talks of his early struggles as a Korean adoptee in the U.S. In the African-American community where he grew up in Texas, he encountered racial prejudice for his Korean heritage. Outside that community, he experienced discrimination for being African-American.
“It was really hard,” he says in a phone interview. “[But in] Korea, it was worse.” Worse on all fronts, he says. The discrimination. The poverty.
He also remembers crying for his biological mother. And of feeling, at first, like an outsider in his adoptive family.
“I wasn’t sure about love in my adoptive family,” he says. “I felt a black sheep.”
“That’s why we have adoptee gatherings today – so they can share experiences and see people who share their features and history,” says our guide, referring to adoptee camps, picnics and the other gatherings introduced over the years.
“You needed to see other adoptees,” Ko’s son says.
Here today, Ko has the opportunity to meet a fellow Korean adoptee of his generation – Susan Soon-Keum Cox, Holt’s vice president of public policy and external affairs. They share a heartfelt discussion in her office, a corner room filled with pictures of her family.
Toward the end of their visit, Kim steps in to say goodbye. Kim and Ko embrace, and pray together. The bond they share feels authentic, and it is. In Kim’s memoir, he wrote how much he loved visiting the children once home in their adoptive families. “They were in my heart and soul, having worked with them closely every day at the center,” he wrote.
I wondered if Kim had ever given young Joey Ko a haircut, or a spanking. He gave him the surname he carried for much of his life, that we know. And as director of the Holt Adoption Program in Korea in 1958, David Kim gave Joey Ko one more very special gift – the gift of a new life.
Interested in connecting to other adoptees or adoptive families? Holt International and Adoptees for Children present an international forum in Washington D.C! This meaningful forum seeks to build on 55 years of international adoption experience, moving forward to strengthen the collective intercountry adoption community. Adoptees and adoptive families are especially encouraged to attend this historic event! For more information and to register, click here