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Records search reconnects lives, past

Two Korean adoptees reunite, creating a new extended family


by: OUTLOOK PHOTO/JIM CLARK - Lori Stegmann and Kim Smith read a letter of recommendation that Kim´s mother wrote to an adoption agency on behalf of Lori's parents. The letter highlighted the family´s steady income and tidy home.It’s been 50 years since the families of two toddlers — who as abandoned baby girls were flown from Seoul, South Korea, to new lives in the United States — began the process of drifting apart.

Their parents got new jobs. New homes. Moved to new cities.

Kim Smith’s adoptive parents, Joy and Charles, moved from a small inland California town to the northern California coast when she was just 2 or 3, leaving behind a couple they’d become close friends with, Edna and Walter Stegmann, and their adopted daughter Lori.

The two couples jointly went through the process of adopting the babies, who’d been abandoned in Korea in 1960. Those baby girls flew on the same cargo plane to Portland as part of an orphan airlift through the Holt Adoption Program.

The Smiths and the Stegmanns had returned with their bundles of joy to the California town where both families lived.

Their fathers worked together in the lumber industry.

And their mothers were best friends.

‘Knew they were Korean’

A few years after the Smiths moved closer to the ocean, the Stegmanns did, too.

Lori’s family moved north to Oregon’s Lincoln City when she was 5, and eventually landed in the Rockwood area.

Lori attended Lynch Terrace Grade School.

by: CONTRIBUTED BY LORI STEGMANN - Lori Stegmann, left, and Kim Smith, right, sit with Lori´s sister and brothers in this photo dated July 1961. Kim´s adoptive parents were unable to have children, while Lori´s parents had four biological children when they adopted her.She grew up sipping milk shakes from the soda fountain at Rexall Drugs, riding her bike to the old Kienow’s grocery store and even saw Robert Kennedy speak while he was stumping for president.

It was an all-American childhood. But Lori remembers women commenting to her mother, “What a cute Asian baby.”

“If you ever saw an Asian child with Caucasians, you knew they were Korean,” Kim said during a July visit to Lori’s Gresham home.

Kim remembers people at the grocery store asking her mom if she was sponsoring the little Asian girl at her side.

Lori went on to attend David Douglas, Madison and Parkrose high schools — the latter of which she graduated from. She earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Portland State University, married Tom Fetters, had a daughter, Rachel Fetters, 13, and later divorced.

She owns an insurance agency not far from where she grew up in Rockwood, is a founding member of the Rockwood Business Coalition and since 2011 has served as a member of the Gresham City Council.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO/JIM CLARK - Lori Stegmann and Kim Smith laugh during a recent visit at Stegmann's Gresham home. Kim  lives in Georgia and has visited four times since reconnecting with Lori in late 2010.Lori now lives in Gresham’s Powell Valley neighborhood with her daughter and sweetie John Sage, a fellow insurance agent.

Her parents were married for more than 50 years before her father died 12 years ago. Her mom just turned 81 and lives in Sacramento.

As for Kim, her parents divorced when she was in the fourth grade. She moved with her mother to Arkansas, where she graduated from the University of Arkansas, met and married Tom Owens and moved to Atlanta. They now live in Cartersville, Ga., a town of about 30,000 an hour north of Atlanta, and have one daughter, Wallis Smith Owens, 23.

Somewhere along the way, Kim converted to Judaism. She works as an administrator for an ophthalmologist office.

Facebook friends

In December 2010, after the death of her mother, Kim was sorting through old photos when she ran across one of the Stegmann family.

Growing up, Kim recalled there always being a Stegmann family photo on the television or mantle. So even though Kim didn’t remember playing with the girl who looked so much like she did, she remembered the Stegmann family being a constant presence.

“I wonder if they’re on Facebook,” Kim thought, and searched the site for Lori’s name.

Up it popped.

They “friended” each other and caught up.

The tone was friendly but not overly warm. Polite but not gushing.

There was no cosmic lightning bolt of connection.

No surge of what-once-was-lost-now-is-found. Instead, their bond forged slowly.

A few months after finding each other online, Kim wrote Lori with news that her daughter Wallis had a fashion design internship in Portland for the summer.

This set both mothers’ maternal instincts into overdrive.

“Kim was freaking out because her only daughter was going to be on the West Coast,” Lori said. “And me having a 13-year-old daughter, I totally understand.”

Lori offered to help in any way she could. That summer when Wallis was in town, she invited her along for a family camping trip.

“She loved them,” Kim said. “We have no extended family at all, so I think she just embraced it.”

A short time later, Kim headed to the Portland area to visit her daughter and arranged to meet Lori and her family.

“Well, I hope these people are as good as Wallis says they are,” Kim remembered thinking.

Lori and Kim met for the first time as adults over dinner in Portland. They were instantly comfortable with each other.

That fall, Wallis returned to the South, finished up her bachelor’s degree at Auburn University in Alabama, then dropped another bombshell on her mother: She was moving to Portland.

Now Lori serves as Wallis’ surrogate mother and has her over for family dinner every other week.

“If Kim reports a crisis, I can check up on her,” Lori said. “And I check out all the boyfriends first.”

Beyond oceans

Last December, she began the process of opening her adoption records in the hope of finding her birth mother and possibly other relatives.

“You have this fantasy that maybe they’ve been trying to find you for the last 30 years,” Lori said.

But all Lori got was little more than a receipt stating she was of two baby girls found abandoned at City Hall on March 11, 1960.

Deeply disappointed, she relayed the sparse findings to her new friend.

“Kim understood,” Lori said.

“I kind of feel like I found my family even though I didn’t find my mom,” she continued, tears moistening her eyes as she gestured toward Kim next to her. “She’s the closest I will ever have to a biological family.

“And if that’s all I ever find, I feel pretty lucky.”

In case Lori’s mother comes to Holt looking for the baby she left 52 years ago, Lori has written her a letter complete with a life span of photos.

The letter and photos now wait for Lori’s mother in that thin adoption file.

“After having my own child, I realized that you must have loved me greatly to give me up,” reads the letter. “Even if my research does not turn out well, I think it is important to say thank you for giving me the best life I could have ever imagined. I want to give confirmation that you did the right thing no matter what the cost was to you.

“... I know that you loved me beyond words, beyond oceans, beyond countries.”


The first story in this two-part series was published in the Sept. 6 Portland Tribune.