January 31, 2020

Outside Seoul City Hall, one day in July 1960, a young baby girl was abandoned. Malnourished and underweight, she was rescued by churchgoers who cared for her until she was healthy enough to survive a cargo plane flight to an adoptive family in Oregon. 

Sixty years later, County Commissioner Lori Stegmann stood before the Korean Society of Oregon to be honored for her remarkable journey from immigrant adoptee to now, the first Korean American Commissioner on the Multnomah County Board.

Jung-Bang Oh, President of the Korean Society of Oregon, presented the Commissioner with a plaque of recognition on Jan. 13 — Korean American Day  — for “serving with great distinction and as a voice for Koreans in Oregon.”

“The Korean community is very proud of Lori,’’ said Greg Caldwell, Honorary Consul for South Korea. “They love seeing a Korean adoptee who has become a political leader in Oregon. They also appreciate the fact that Lori is exploring her Korean roots by traveling there and embracing Korean culture. They feel a camaraderie and appreciate her serving as a voice for the Korean community--as well as others.’’

Accepting the honor was a role reversal for Stegmann, who had been the keynote speaker the previous year, helping to bestow the honors at the annual event in 2019.  

Adopted by Walt and Edna Stegmann, she was raised in the Rockwood and Gresham neighborhoods of east Multnomah County. Despite her loving parents, Stegmann was one of the few people of color in her elementary school and the only person she knew in a mixed race family. After college, she became a businesswoman and eventually entered public service. 

“I was surrounded by people who loved me but I always knew I was different,” said Commissioner Stegmann, “I often felt an indescribable void and longed to find a part of me I didn’t know existed.” 

She served six years on the Gresham City Council and in 2016, she was elected to the County Commission representing residents east of 148th Avenue in Portland, all of Gresham, Wood Village, Troutdale, Fairview, and unincorporated eastern Multnomah County.

While a Gresham city councilor, Stegmann became active in the Gresham-Sokcho Sister City Association. In 2017, she had a chance to travel with them to Korea along with her daughter, Rachel.  They visited the steps of Seoul City Hall where she was abandoned. And after much sleuthing they were able to locate and find the remnants of the orphanage that she spent three months of her life in.  They also paid homage to the gravesites of Harry and Bertha Holt, whose adoption agency helped bring her to Oregon.

Stegmann said she fell in love with the culture, the food, and the people of Korea — but so have many Americans. In his speech this year, Consul Caldwell, who is director of International Students and Scholars at Lewis and Clark College, said Americans are embracing Korean culture, from the wildly popular K-Pop Academies that introduce students to Korean pop music to the film “Parasite,” which has been nominated for six Academy Awards.

Today, there are about two million people who identify as ethnically Korean in the United States, and that Korean immigration has actually declined as it has become more prosperous, more stable, better educated, and better able to provide more opportunities.’’

“Korea is truly becoming a hot spot for young professionals,’’ Caldwell told the gathering. “Their vision of Korea is not war, orphans or poverty,’’ but a place for “opportunities, learning, adventure and the future.’’

Standing with the Korean Society of Oregon as she was honored for her service, Stegmann thought of her journey from South Korea.  “Going back to my birthplace and tracing my path was such an incredible gift. It helped me gain a deeper understanding of who I am and why I am so passionate about serving our communities.  I don‘t take that lightly and I always try to be grateful for the many blessings I have been given.

Honorary Consul Greg Caldwell addresses the assembly.

Commissioner poses with performers and Society leaders.