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Airlift baby reunites with childhood friend, seeks biological mother

Lori Stegmann connects with baby from same Korean orphanage, airlift flight


EDITOR'S NOTE: It’s been a year and a half since Lori Stegmann of Gresham responded to a Facebook friend request from Kim Smith, a Georgia woman whose dramatic start in life mirrors Lori’s.

In that time, the two have formed a friendship echoing that of their mothers, who were best friends when they adopted the girls from a Korean orphanage in 1960.

But it’s a bond that goes even deeper.

Reporter Mara Stine interviewed both women in July during Kim’s fourth visit to Lori’s home. The result is a two-part series. Part two will run Tuesday, Sept. 4.

Part I: As an Oregon farmer spotlights the need to adopt Korean orphans after the Korean War, two California couples go through the adoption process together.

Part II: Lori Stegmann reunites with Kim Smith, and it inspires her to look for her birth mother.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Lori Stegmann looks through paperwork she has compiled since delving into her adoption records and trying to find her birth parents.This was not the family she expected.

Longtime Gresham resident Lori Stegmann, 52, hoped to meet her birth mother, who abandoned her at City Hall in Seoul, Korea, in 1960.

She dreamed of discovering the truth about her father, rumored to be Native American.

Was he an American GI, like those who fathered so many babies through what could most kindly be called “undisciplined conduct”?

She fantasized about embracing half-siblings, cousins, anyone who looked like her.

Instead, she got Kim Smith — a wisp of a woman and a self-described Asian-Jewish-Southern belle from Georgia. Plus Kim’s quiet, reserved husband and their fashion-designer daughter.

No, it’s not the family Lori expected.

But she wouldn’t trade it for the world.

••••

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF LORI STEGMANN - Charles and Joy Smith, left, with daughter Kim, alongside Edna and Walter Stegmann, right, with daughter Lori.Kim and Lori were born in Seoul in 1960 and landed in the same orphanage as part of a common but shameful reality of the times: American and other western soldiers fighting in the Korean War from 1950 and 1953 fathered babies with local women. Those babies and children became outcasts due to the heavy weight that Korean society places on race and paternal bloodlines.

As such, Koreans called these mixed-race babies “tuigi” — slang for dust of the street, child of a foreign devil or simply devil child.

Babies perished in dumps, tossed out like trash. Others roamed the streets, where, betrayed by features such as blue eyes or blond hair, other Korean children beat them.

Many ended up in orphanages after being abandoned by their mothers, usually at government buildings. Even in the refuge of an orphanage, many babies and children starved, sometimes to death.

Not all of the orphanage babies were mixed race. Many were left homeless when parents died in the war or from disease after the war ended.

An estimated 100,000 children were left orphaned in the war’s wake. By 1954, that number grew by more than 1,000 children a month as mothers abandoned babies and homeless children seeking a safe haven came in off the streets.

At the time, more than 400 orphanages were registered in Korea.

That same year, a farmer from Creswell, Ore., watched a film presented by World Vision about these babies and their plight. Horrified by the poverty, starvation and despair, Harry Holt and his wife, Bertha, offered to sponsor 10 orphans, paying $10 a month per child for food, medicine and other essentials.

Through letters and photos, the Holts bonded with these orphans and offered to adopt eight GI children to add to their family of six biological children.

••••

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Stegmann's baby book details visitors and gifts, including the baby book and a fork and spoon set from the Smiths, family friends who also adopted a baby girl from Korea at the same time the Stegmanns did. OUTLOOK PHOTO:  JIM CLARKThe gesture was a cultural revolution. Back then adoption was a secret. Children were paired with parents according to similar physical traits, so they could blend unnoticed into the fiber of the family, concealing their true genetic makeup.

It also was prohibited to adopt so many children: The United States imposed a limit of two Korean children per couple.

Bertha Holt galvanized friends and neighbors, who wrote letters to Congress asking that the Holts be allowed to adopt the eight children they had room for. Within two months, on the last day of the legislative session, Congress repealed the limit.

In 1955, when Harry returned home to Oregon with the babies and toddlers in tow, it was a media event.

Suddenly, childless couples yearning for a baby had a new option. They flooded the farm in Creswell with phone calls and letters asking how they too could adopt a GI baby from Korea.

Haunted by the emaciated outstretched arms Harry had to leave behind, the Holts launched the Holt Adoption Program to care for Korean orphans and abandoned babies until they could be placed with adoptive families.

••••

Families such as Joy and Charles Smith in Sonoma County, Calif. The couple longed for a baby but was unable to have one. Although Charles worked hard in the logging industry, traditional adoption agencies considered the seasonal nature of his job unstable and refused to let them adopt.

Charles worked with a man, Walter Stegmann, who with his wife, Edna, had four children — three boys and a girl. The men became friends, as did their wives.

As news of the plight facing Korean babies spread thanks to the Holts’ quest to save them, Edna’s sister Joyce adopted three children, two Korean and one Hispanic, through the Christian-based organization.

The process lit a fire under Edna, who got excited about the possibility of adopting a baby from Korea.

That fire spread to her best friend, Joy.

Both women — who by this point knew each other for six years — wrote each other letters of recommendation. Joy specifically highlighted the Stegmanns’ steady income and complimented Edna’s housekeeping skills.

••••

The Holt Adoption Program approved both families for adoption.

The Stegmanns received a letter dated April 12, 1960, from the Holt Adoption Program with a photo of a baby girl born eight weeks earlier on Jan. 24, 1960.

“This little dear was abandoned at the City Hall in Seoul, Korea, and was admitted to our Orphanage on March 11, 1960,” the letter reads. “Our good Dr. Ten Have says she has no physical defect, and they say she is a fine-looking baby with snappy brown eyes and is alert. We think she looks precious.”

For just $450 — or $3,275 in today’s currency — the baby could be theirs.

“Please let us know right away if you approve,” read the letter.

The Stegmanns did. On May 3, 1960, they officially adopted her.

That’s how Kim Pung Sook became Lori Lynn Stegmann.

Meanwhile, the Smiths received a similar letter about a similar baby girl, also with brown hair and eyes, abandoned on the courthouse steps.

They, too, approved and named their baby girl Kimberly Sue Smith.

••••

Both babies were on the same plane of approximately 100 Korean babies that made a 24-hour trip to Portland, landing on July 16, 1960.

Such flights became known as the Holt Airlift and initially airlifted thousands of Korean babies to new lives in the United States through what became known as Holt International Children’s Services.

Trips were made on unheated cargo planes, 100 babies at a time.

There was much urgency to the airlifts. Troops from the north had threatened to slaughter mixed-race babies. Plus, the babies were so malnourished it was feared they’d die during such a long trip.

And some did.

With Lori’s father working in an isolated California logging camp, her parents were unable to pick her up at the Portland airport.

The baby stayed in Creswell with Bertha Holt for a week until her adoptive parents could get her.

Once back in California, the couples basked in the glow of their new babies and in each other’s good fortune.

“To our beloved Lori Lynn Stegmann,” is inscribed in Lori’s baby book — a gift from the Smiths.

The babies played together. And their families often met up for picnic lunches in the forests where Charles and Walter logged.

But when Kim was 2 or 3, her family moved to the coast in Mendocino County, Calif.

Another 50 years would pass before the babies ever saw each other again.




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