Molly Holt, the second-eldest daughter of the founders of a Eugene-based Holt International Children's Services, an international adoption organization, has died. She devoted her life to caring for homeless and disabled children and adults at a care center her family built in South Korea. She was 83.
Holt died Thursday afternoon local time at a Seoul hospital after a long battle with multiple myeloma, or cancer of the plasma cells that form in bone marrow, Holt International Children's Services announced Friday.
Her cancer and treatment "did not prevent her from continuing her life’s work on behalf of homeless children," the organization said.
News of the death of Holt, known as the "Mother of all Korea’s Orphans," prompted condolences from prominent figures both in the U.S. and abroad.
"The contribution of Molly Holt to humanity and humanism ... is a historic achievement," Lee Hong-Koo, South Korea's former prime minister, said in a statement released by Holt International. "The modern history of Korea will record her achievement with gratitude and admiration. Many of us in Korea join the Holt adoptee community in recording our love and farewell."
Added U.S. Sen Ron Wyden, D-Ore.: "Although she lived most of her life in Korea, all of us in Oregon consider her an exceptional Oregonian. Molly leaves a legacy of caring and compassion that will endure for generations to come."
Born in South Dakota, Holt attended high school in Creswell and later graduated from the University of Oregon and Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene, where she earned a nursing degree in 1956.
Shortly after graduation, Holt, then 20, traveled to South Korea at her father's request to help establish the adoption agency.
A couple years earlier, Holt's founders, Harry and Bertha Holt, who lived on a farm near Creswell, were moved by the plight of malnourished mixed-race "G.I. babies." These offspring of military service members and Korean women during the Korean War were filling up the country's orphanages.
The couple, who had six children, adopted eight orphans from South Korea after lobbying Congress to change the law to be able to do so. The publicity stemming from their effort increased domestic interest in international adoption, and the Holts formed the Christian-based nonprofit organization to help Korean orphans find loving parents.
Today, the organization, with annual revenues of about $27 million, provides adoption and other services in 12 countries. Since 1955, more than 150,000 Korean children have joined families through international adoption, the organization reported.
In 1961, the organization opened the Holt Ilsan Center as an orphanage. The building gradually transitioned to care for orphans with development and physical disabilities. Today, the center houses and cares for about 300 residents, from toddlers to adults. In addition to providing around-the-clock care, the center's employees and volunteers work to provide residents skills so they can live independent lives.
Molly Holt would spend more than five decades as the center's heart and soul. She also served as board chairwoman of the South Korean organization that is legally separate but closely affiliated with Holt International.
Only a few times in her life did Molly leave the Ilsan Center for extended periods and only to pursue additional training to better meet the needs of Ilsan's residents. She returned to the University of Oregon for a brief period to pursue post-graduate work in special education.
Holt never married nor had children of her own. She was family to the center's residents as they were hers, a close relationship expressed in their term of endearment for her: "eonni," or big sister. It was a nickname she cherished.
She received the National Order of Civil Merit from South Korea in 1981, and the Royal Norwegian Order of of Merit in 2009.
Holt was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 but remained committed to her life's work, saying she'd devote her remaining time to "the things that she loves with her whole heart."
Services for Holt will be held in South Korea on Tuesday at the Ilsan Center. A memorial service in Oregon is planned this summer.
Holt is survived by seven of her adopted and birth siblings. She is preceded in death by her parents and six siblings.
Follow Christian Hill on Twitter @RGchill. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.