|Credit: Des Moines Register|
Ken Quinn is a storyteller. And in his 70 years, he’s picked up a few anecdotal gems.
Quinn, president of the World Food Prize, will tell you the one about how a bad urine test nearly ended his 32-year diplomatic career before it began, or the ones about his reverence for great Iowa humanitarians like former Gov. Robert Ray and the late agricultural scientist Norman Borlaug.
But this story is one of his best: How a Bronx, N.Y.-born kid raised in Dubuque, who really wanted to be Perry Mason, ended up a civilian commanding U.S. troops in the Vietnam War and now fights hunger on a global scale.
Quinn has seen humanity at its worst: in war, famine and death. Yet he approaches each day with the irrepressible attitude of one of the world’s great optimists.
“You see the terrible side of human beings, and you see human tragedy, but there is hopefulness,” Quinn said in a recent interview with The Des Moines Register in advance of the World Food Prize ceremonies this week in Des Moines. “I like to think there is an awful lot of good in people, too.”
From Iowa to Asia
Quinn roots his optimism in his childhood during post-World War II America. A young senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, spoke at the commencement of Loras College, Quinn’s future alma mater, in 1956.
Quinn didn’t see him. He was just starting high school. But he felt his presence. Kennedy represented the next generation of Americans who, after winning World War II, would change the world for the better.
“There was this great sense of good things that America could do,” Quinn recalled. “There were a lot of problems in the world to be confronted, but our country seemed to have this ability from the strength of the people. Everyone was so proud to be an American.”
Kennedy had said that if he had not gone into politics, he would have pursued a career in the U.S. Foreign Service. This idea stuck with Quinn.
Quinn graduated from Loras in 1960. He watched “Perry Mason” on TV as a boy and the thought of being in a courtroom excited him. Quinn has the entire show on DVD today.
But his family had hit hard times. He had only enough money, about $15, to take the law boards or the graduate school exam. Even if he passed, he couldn’t afford tuition.
But the Foreign Service exam was free. He drove to Madison, Wis., and took the daylong test.
“Only the best of the best got into the service,” Quinn said. “You had a pretty good chance if you were from Harvard or Yale. But nobody would have bet very much on a kid who graduated from Loras in Dubuque.”
Quinn passed the written and later the oral exam. Next came the physical. And that nearly wrecked the whole ride.
Career nearly derailed
The physical turned up a small problem: a strand of protein in his urine that shouldn’t be there.
U.S. State Department officials sent Quinn to a specialist at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., for a week of tests with one of the nation’s top urologists. The protein strain was deemed a harbinger of future kidney problems.
The State Department wanted only healthy candidates. Quinn was disqualified.
Crushed, he went to visit an uncle who lived in nearby Huntington, Va. The uncle took Quinn to visit a urologist who worked in a small office at the Huntington Bank Building, where the uncle also had an office.
The urologist took a sample from Quinn, ran it through one test and wrote a letter to the state department saying the urine sample was fine.
“This was a small city doctor up against one of the country’s top experts,” Quinn said. “But he happened to be the president-elect of the American Urological Society. And it said so on his letterhead.”
The officials looked at the letter and put it in his file, atop a thick report from the Georgetown urologist, and said, “OK, you’re in.”
The power of roads
Quinn was enthralled. He dreamed of a post in Western Europe, perhaps London or France. He thought of great ballrooms and chandeliers dangling from vaulted ceilings.
The state department noted Quinn was single, healthy and under 26. It was 1968. He was sent to Vietnam.
After a year spent struggling to learn Vietnamese, Quinn landed in a district on the Mekong Delta region. He was a rural development officer. His job was to help farmers develop better agriculture methods and move their crops to market.
There, Quinn learned two of the most important lessons of his life.
The first was the power of rural roads. His team rebuilt an old French market road that ran through eight villages in the district.
As the road finished in the first four villages, Quinn noticed immediate changes. With a road that could support trucks, farmers could get their crops to market. They bought sheet metal to cover the roofs of their houses. They bought new clothes. Children traveled between villages to school — and they stayed in school. Sick children were able to get to medical stations for help. Mortality improved.
“And the Vietcong infrastructure in those villages started to evaporate,” Quinn said. “Young people didn’t see any reason to become a guerrilla fighter.”
The second lesson wouldn’t set in for another three decades. Villages along the new road started using a product called IR8, known as “miracle rice.”
The specially cross-bred rice allowed farmers to get two or three crops a year instead of one. It brought prosperity to people who had known only starvation and poverty.
The “miracle rice” was developed in the Philippines using “miracle wheat” techniques invented by a Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist from Cresco named Norman Borlaug.
Borlaug had cross-bred wheat to make it more weather and disease resistant. It’s believed his work saved a billion people from starvation in India and Pakistan. The rice was a direct descendant of Borlaug’s work. And it was changing lives before Quinn’s eyes in Vietnam.
“I didn’t know it yet,” Quinn said, “but I’d met Norman Borlaug.”
Staying in Vietnam
Quinn still dreamed of the gilded embassies of Western Europe. Orders finally came through. He was going to study labor relations at Harvard, and then earn a post in Western Europe.
Before he returned stateside, he gave a reporter a tour of the Mekong Delta and talked about his plans. The reporter asked him why he would do that. He clearly was making a difference in Vietnam.
Why would he want to go to Europe and write reports on labor that people might never read?
The next morning, Quinn wrote to Washington and said he wanted to stay in Vietnam.
The State Department put him in charge of one of the toughest districts in the country. He was the senior official there. Both civilian and military personnel reported to him.
Near Quinn’s post was an airfield that had been partially overrun during the Tet Offensive. To hold back enemy advancements at night, Quinn boarded a Huey helicopter with a South Vietnamese officer at dusk.
With four other helicopters on their wing, including two gunships, they skimmed the treetops and looked for enemies encroaching on the camp.
The helicopter pilots needed approval from Quinn to fire on suspected enemies. Sometimes Quinn said yes. Other times he said no.
“There were areas where there were no civilians, but the closer you got to the village, the more farmers were out working,” Quinn said. “I knew these people.”
If the gunship captain questioned his order, Quinn responded with his own. Let’s land and check them out, he said.
“If I was wrong, we would’ve been shot,” Quinn said. “I was right. One of my proudest accomplishments is there were no innocents shot while I was in charge of that district.”
Meeting his life's love
Amidst the chaos of war, Quinn managed to meet the love of his life. Quinn spotted Le Son sitting in the corner of a party in Saigon. He walked over to the attractive young woman who was there chaperoning her cousins. She spoke no English and was reading a book.
They chatted for a bit, and Quinn moved off to mingle. Another bilingual American spoke to Le Son and said Quinn must have spoken Vietnamese very well because she seemed so amused by Quinn’s anecdotes.
“He spoke Vietnamese like a hick from the country,” Le Son Quinn said. “I had asked him about bumps on his arm. He said a mosquito walked on him. I laughed because mosquitoes don’t walk, they fly. He thought he was charming and had really made a score.”
Quinn’s charm must have sparked something, because after he was transferred to Saigon, they began dating. Eventually, he proposed.
“He is the most generous and patient man I’ve ever met,” Le Son Quinn said. “Asians believe that the way things are is the way things will always be. Ken always believes with effort that things can change.”
By 1974, Quinn was assigned to the Vietnam-Cambodian border.
The first of tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the genocidal rampage of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were crossing into Vietnam. Pol Pot emptied Cambodian cities and instituted forced work camps, brutal torture and starvation. More than 2 million died under his rule.
Quinn was the first U.S. government official to witness the horrors firsthand.
“It was like seeing the seventh level of hell from Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ ” he said of the refugee camps. “People were so emaciated, rail thin. They dropped where they were, unable to move. Children were all alone.”
Quinn remembered one boy covered in diarrhea and filth in a makeshift medical tent.
“The life drained out of him as I watched,” Quinn said.
Quinn documented Pol Pot’s genocide in a lengthy report to the State Department. The report contrasted starkly with previous reports and intelligence.
In part because of the tight control Pol Pot wielded, the CIA and other intelligence agencies, as well as Western journalists, struggled to witness and understand what was going on in Cambodia.
Yale University genocide studies scholar Ben Kiernan credits Quinn with being the first official to document the horrors and one of the only ones to make parts of his findings public.
Saigon fell in 1975. Quinn had to evacuate the country with his wife. He worked the system to get his wife’s family out — her parents and eight others.
They relocated to a two-bedroom townhouse in suburban Washington, D.C. The 12 of them shared the home for two years. Le Son Quinn was going crazy. Ken Quinn took it in stride.
“He always thought it was temporary,” she said. “He never complained. I did. There was only one bathroom for all of us.”
Back to Iowa
The Quinns came to Iowa in 1977. Ken Quinn was on loan to the administration of then-Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, helping with efforts to relocate Southeast Asians displaced by the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Ray had a history of leading Iowa in international humanitarian efforts. In 1975, Ray agreed to help Tai Dam refugees fleeing the civil war in Laos resettle in Iowa.
In 1977, Ray again opened Iowa’s borders, to the “boat people” (Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians) who fled on boats made of oil drums.
In 1979, Quinn joined Ray and several other U.S. governors on a visit to Indochina regions overrun by more than 300,000 Cambodian refugees. Ray was so moved by the suffering that he returned to Iowa and worked with The Des Moines Register and Iowa clergy to use the charity Iowa Shares to help.
The charity sent doctors, nurses, food and supplies — more than $1.5 million in 2012 money — to aid the region.
“Gov. Ray was and is a deeply moral man,” Quinn said. “He believed it was our moral duty to help those people. He could not just let them die.”
On that trip to Indochina refugee camps, Ray and Quinn entered a thatch-roof hut. One of the refugees showed the pair a symbol of hope.
“It was an Iowa Department of Transportation road map,” Quinn said. “There were little pins in the state where Tai Dam people had relocated. You talk about hope in the sorrow. Halfway across the world, our state was hope. I was proud to be an Iowan.”
Quinn had unfinished business in Cambodia. His 1974 report had opened the book on the country’s troubles with the Khmer Rouge. The State Department sent him back in 1995 as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia to close the book.
At last, Quinn was an ambassador. He had his own embassy — but it was not the gilded palace of his youthful imagination.
“We started out working in hotels, and we ended up renting a few houses and putting a wall up around them,” Quinn said. “Right outside the door was a whorehouse.”
Pol Pot was hiding in the jungles. The Khmer Rouge had about 20,000 soldiers still in Cambodia. The nation was at civil war.
He took his lessons from Vietnam and put them to use in Cambodia. He ordered officials to rent every piece of road building equipment they could find and start improving roads so farmers could get their crops to market and people could travel quickly and safely between villages.
Khmer Rouge soldiers began to surrender. The tide had turned. In 1998, the last Khmer Rouge fighter surrendered.
Growing a legacy
Since 1990, the Ruan family, who headed transportation, banking and trade companies, had funded the World Food Prize.
In 1999, John Ruan II was looking for a new head of the organization. He knew Quinn had kept his Des Moines home from his years of working for Ray. Ruan wondered whether the world traveler might be looking to settle down.
Ruan flew Quinn to Des Moines, where he met with Ruan’s son, John Ruan III, and Norman Borlaug, the scientist who created the World Food Prize to honor hunger-fighting achievements in agricultural science.
Over dinner one night, Quinn started to talk about the hunger he’d seen and the power of roads to bring crops to market.
Borlaug, a stiff, taciturn man of few words, slapped the table with his palm and exclaimed, “Roads!”
Those at the dinner fell silent. Borlaug explained how important roads had been in Pakistan and India, where his miracle wheat had saved so many, and how important they were going to be on his latest project — starvation in the Horn of Africa.
“I think Ken really took to my dad,” said Jeanie Borlaug Laube, Norman Borlaug’s daughter. “They connected over the hunger they had seen, and Ken was very moved by my dad’s passion to fight hunger.”
Later in the year, John Ruan III flew to Washington, D.C., on business and met with Quinn to try to persuade him to take over the food prize.
“I put on one of my best sales jobs,” Ruan III said. “I’m glad it worked, because since Ken has come aboard, we’ve moved forward on, if not 100 percent of our goals, then 99.9 percent.”
Quinn took the job. His wife stayed in Virginia to sell their home, while he and their daughter, who was entering high school, took charge of their old house in Des Moines. It was early August 1999. Quinn and his daughter heard a pop-pop-pop outside. They flinched.
“That sounded like gunfire,” Quinn said. Then it went off again. He relaxed. It was firecrackers. The Quinns were home.
Quinn set about lionizing Borlaug’s legacy.
He put wheels in motion to get Borlaug, already the recipient of a Nobel Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom, a Congressional Gold Medal.
He persuaded the Iowa Legislature to put a statue of Borlaug in the U.S. Capitol National Statuary Hall Collection.
Quinn is working on a program that will draw the top science student from every high school in Iowa to Iowa State University in hopes of persuading some of them to pursue agricultural science and follow in Borlaug’s footsteps.
“We have to not only recognize the achievements of the past and present, but cultivate the next generation,” Quinn said. “Norman Borlaug was a singular genius, but you never know where that next great mind is going to come from.”
A final mission
The food prize took over the former Des Moines Central Library building and put it through a $28 million renovation. If the World Food Prize was to be considered with the Nobel Prize, then it needed a home that looked the part, Quinn figured.
“Architecture and art have a way of elevating the subjects they surround,” Quinn said. “Look at our churches,” he said, built to the powerful concept of God. “You build these edifices as a way to convey to the next generation how important this is.”
So the old library was transformed into a place of tapestries, sculptures and stained-glass windows.
“It’s the embassy I never had,” Quinn said.
Word of the World Food Prize has spread. In 2000, Quinn’s first year as president, a few hundred attended the ceremonies. This year, the guest list is more than 1,500 and includes U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
In 2011, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was a World Food Prize winner for his efforts to combat hunger and poverty in his country.
Through an interpreter, da Silva said in his acceptance speech, “I’m so proud to accept this award in a place where they build statues to people who feed the hungry.”
Quinn smiles when he tells that story.
“That’s what this is about,” he said.
This year will be Quinn’s 12th year leading the World Food Prize. He has no plans to retire and says he has no hand-picked successor.
He faced a cancer scare two years ago.
The long days in the weeks leading up to the World Food Prize events wear him out more than they used to, he said.
Yet, at 70, he remains focused on the future. Quinn has already begun booking speakers for the 2013 event.
“I want to do this until they carry me out,” Quinn said.
He has served in many posts, in both war and peace. The World Food Prize is likely his last mission. But he considers it his greatest challenge: facing down hunger and poverty, problems as old as mankind itself.
“I believe in Norman Borlaug’s legacy,” Quinn said. “I believe, as he did, in the power of science. If we keep up Norman’s struggle in the 21st century, confront the problems and work hard to alleviate, maybe, just maybe, we can eradicate hunger from the face of the earth.”
Credit: The Des Moines Register