The World Food Prize Foundation

The World Food Prize Foundation Pays Tribute to Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray

07/09/2018

Statement by Foundation President Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn

On behalf of all of the World Food Prize Laureates and our Council of Advisors, The World Food Prize Foundation extends its deepest condolences to the family of Governor Robert D. Ray who passed away on July 8, 2018.

It was at a celebratory Tai Dam festival in the winter of 1975 that I first met Governor Ray. Serving on the National Security Council staff at the White House at that time, I carried a letter from President Jerry Ford commending Iowa for its role in refugee resettlement. It was at that event that he asked me to join his staff.

During that time I was directly involved in the humanitarian issues related to three distinct refugee groups from Indo-China as well as serving as the Public Safety Coordinator for the visit of Pope John Paul II in October 1979. I had the great privilege to work directly for and with Gov. Ray as a member of his staff between 1978 and 1982.

Twenty-five years later, when Pope John Paul II was very ill and near death in late 2004, the then Catholic Bishop of Des Moines, Joseph Charron, was in Rome along with many other church leaders to make what would likely be their last call on the Pope. Bishop Charron described being in line and witnessing what a daunting challenge it was for the frail Pontiff. There were so many bishops, and each bishop would have just a brief moment to say a few words. The Pope would simply nod to acknowledge them. When Bishop Charron finally reached the Holy Father, he said he could see the Pope was very weak. Bishop Charron said, "Your Holiness, I am Joseph Charron, the Bishop of Des Moines. You may remember that you came to Iowa on your first trip to America." When the Pope heard that word – Iowa, it seemed to energize him. John Paul II raised his head and said, “Iowa…..…..Farms…..…..Refugees." The man who put that last word – “refugees” – on the lips of the man now known as St. John Paul II, was former Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray.  

Governor Ray's great moral leadership in welcoming refugees from Southeast Asia is an inspiring story that began with the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, and people desperately trying to escape from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in order to lead lives in freedom. It is actually three great stories. It is a story of the man: who kept the culture of the Tai Dam ethnic group from Laos intact; who was the first governing leader anywhere in the world to step forward to offer a home to the “Boat People” from Vietnam; and who led the Iowa SHARES campaign to rush food and medicine and Iowa doctors and nurses to save starving and dying Cambodians who had suffered so incomparably under the genocidal Khmer Rouge. 

These three distinct stories together form the newest chapter in Iowa’s great humanitarian and agricultural heritage. A heritage that includes: Herbert Hoover’s feeding millions in Europe after World War I while working for a Democratic president; Henry Wallace’s global sharing of American agricultural technology; George Washington Carver’s personal advice on nutrition to Mahatma Gandhi as he led India’s struggle to throw off colonial rule and achieve its independence; Jessie Field Shambaugh’s creating the after school clubs that would become 4-H; and, of course, Norman Borlaug, the founder of the World Food Prize whose leadership of the Green Revolution are credited with saving a billion people from starvation. All of these legacies are represented by artworks in the Iowa Gallery of the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in Des Moines, including a stirring painting of refugees from Indochina by Rose Franzen of Maquoketa. 

The Tai Dam

April, 2015, marked the 40th anniversary of both the capture of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, by the Khmer Rouge (April 17) and the military conquest of Saigon by the North Vietnamese Army, which concluded on April 30. As the riveting documentary that aired on PBS reminded all who had lived through the Vietnam War, the final days of Saigon were chaotic, with the U.S. Ambassador reluctant to conduct any advance planning, and younger officers, including myself, engaged in unauthorized but successful efforts to facilitate the exit of thousands of the most endangered Vietnamese. 

Eventually, about 130,000 people were able to escape South Vietnam before the country fell. Very few left Cambodia, unaware of the genocidal regime about to be imposed. Some additional few thousand refugees walked out of Laos, which did not have a military climax, but just a political collapse and transition to communist rule. All refugees were gathered in transit camps with the great majority eventually brought to the United States.  

As part of the resettlement process in America, every state was to take its fair share. The federal government had set up three processing centers at which each refugee would be given a medical checkup, social security card and then, in an orderly fashion, put on a plane and flown to whichever state had been chosen for them. There would be private relief organizations to welcome them – and family sponsors to try to help them get settled. In one camp, there was a group of people known as the Tai Dam. They were a distinct people from Laos, with their own culture, language and extended familial relationships. They had been together as a separate ethnic group for centuries, first in southern China, then in northern Vietnam, and finally in Laos, each time fleeing so they would not have to live under what they feared would be an oppressive regime. 

Now they had fled again, but this time across the ocean to the United States. In the processing centers in the U.S., the Tai Dam learned about the U.S. policy, which, while allowing individual families to remain intact, required that all other refugees be re-settled through random distribution. No group resettlement was allowed. The Tai Dam feared that in being so scattered across the country, their culture, language and family relationships were about to be broken apart and irretrievably lost. They were desperate. 

Into this matter stepped a remarkable man named Arthur Crisfield, an Iowan who had worked in Laos and knew the Tai Dam. At the request of Tai Dam leaders, Crisfield drafted a letter for them and addressed one to each of the fifty U.S. governors imploring them to take the Tai Dam as a people and allow them to stay together. Of all those letters, only one governor replied...Robert D. Ray. He read Arthur Crisfield’s letter written on behalf of the Tai Dam and he thought maybe, just maybe, Iowa could help these people.   

As Governor Ray would later say, reflecting on this moment, “When that letter arrived, it seemed that it was only logical that here we were in the middle of the world, with food to feed the world, and people who had hearts.”

After going to the White House, the State Department and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, as it was then known, Governor Ray urged the federal government agencies to make an exception to the refugee resettlement policy and let all the Tai Dam come to Iowa. And they did. Not only were the all Tai Dam welcomed here, they were given an unprecedented structure to assist them. Governor Ray said if we are going to do this, we need to do it right. So, under his direction, the State of Iowa became an accredited refugee resettlement agency, just like Catholic Relief Services or Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service or Hebrew Immigration Aid Society or Church World Service or other private voluntary organizations. 

In Iowa, all of those voluntary organizations operated to assist in the process of resettling several thousand Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees. But, for the Tai Dam, the Governor directed that the Iowa Department of Job Service, the state’s labor and employment agency, headed by a dedicated woman named Collen Shearer, to take on the function of being a sponsoring and resettlement agency. It would be the Iowa Department of Job Service employees who would meet the Tai Dam refugees at the airport as the first plane load arrived. The philosophy that Governor Ray directed was, from the beginning, job-oriented: “Let's get people to work; these are industrious people; we’ll find them jobs,” he was quoted as saying.

It was an incredible success. The Tai Dam are to this day together as a people. Their language and culture are still intact. There is a Tai Dam cultural center in Des Moines. Tai Dam refugees and their children have become engaged members of the community, serving on elected boards and holding other responsible positions. It was an extraordinary movement of a people halfway around the globe, all because one man read a letter at night and, instead of throwing it aside or crumbling it up, he reached out and changed history. 

Vietnamese Boat People

By the end of 1976, the American refugee resettlement program had accepted approximately 130,000 people. America was not taking any more refugees, nor was any other country. There was a general sense that we had done our part and it was now time to heal. The flow of refugees out of South Vietnam had dried up. The Vietnam War was over and that country was now going in a different direction with an authoritarian government and very tight controls over the population. 

In 1978, however, people in Southern Vietnam began to make efforts to get out of the country due to the punitive government policies, particularly towards those associated with the former government. Many perceived that there was no future for themselves or their children. Feeling oppressed, many of these people endeavored to escape. As there are many little streams in Southern Vietnam, these would be refugees would board small boats at night and paddle their way out in crafts that were often never meant to transit the ocean. If they were successful in avoiding detection, ultimately they could sail out into the South China Sea, hoping they would pick up the current and somehow to make it to the Philippines or Malaysia or Thailand. It may never be known how many never arrived because they drowned or were killed by marauding pirates.  Many of those who made it, in these frail boats from Vietnam, would finally land on shore only to be forced back out to sea. Local officials, fearful of being inundated with refugees, would, in many cases, force these unfortunate people back on their boats and push them back into the ocean. 

Ed Bradley, an American journalist working for CBS, went and his camera crew were present when one of those pushbacks occurred. He and his team captured it all. They aired their film on the program CBS Reports on a cold night in January 1979. It was the night of a Drake basketball game. Governor Ray, the number one Drake basketball fan, was at the game. Knowing it was an important program, we recorded Bradley’s report at the Governor’s office, as did his wife Billie at their home. After the game, the Governor came back to his office (as he often worked late at night) and together we watched the video. What we saw stunned us. Transfixed, we watched as a sizeable boat filled with dozens and dozens of refugees was pushed back out into the ocean. Heavy waves started battering it and the craft started breaking apart. Before our eyes, the refugees, mostly women and children – all innocent people – were falling off into the sea. Those who could swim somehow struggled to the shore. Bradley and his crew stopped reporting and pulled some half-drowned persons up onto the beach. The others perished in the ocean. It was a shocking, riveting, visual image. 

The show then went on to describe the happier experience of other refugees just a few years earlier during their resettlement all across the United States. They program showed scenes of planes landing and refugees getting off the aircraft and being welcomed by sponsors to their new homes. The camera then zoomed in on a baggage claim check on a suitcase one of the refugees was carrying.  As this baggage claim came into focus, the viewer could read the destination –  Des Moines.   

When Governor Ray saw that shot of the baggage claim check that read Des Moines, it was like a sign: a sign that we had to do something. Of course, no one expected Iowa to do anything for these new “Boat People” refugees, as they would come to be called. There was no political advantage, and indeed there were plenty of political disadvantages, to becoming involved again in refugee resettlement. But in a moment I will never forget, Governor Ray said, "We have two choices. We can turn our backs or we can reach out a hand to help these people who are struggling for life." 

We stayed late that night as Governor Ray wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter that in effect told the President that if he would just reopen the American refugee program to try to save these Boat People, Iowa will double its refugee intake.  The next morning, the Governor read the letter to the press. It was a stirring and historic moment. Governor Robert Ray was the first governing leader in the world to commit to rescuing the Boat People.

A few weeks later, Governor Ray wrote to every governor in America urging them to join with him in saving the “Boat People.” Then, in early February 1979, Governor Ray went to the winter meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C., where he made a special request for time to speak to the forty-nine other governors all assembled around the table. He made an impassioned plea to them to join with him, and together to show the President that the states were willing to receive these new refugees and convince him to reopen America’s doors. Governor Ray concluded by stressing to the governors that together they could save these unfortunate Boat People who were dying in such horrible circumstances.  

When he finished there was total silence. It appeared his plea would go unanswered. As Governor Ray, crestfallen, was about to retake his seat, one governor, William Milliken, a Republican from Michigan, and then another, Brendan Byrne, a Democrat from New Jersey, stood up and said they would be with him. 

The three governors formed a special NGA Task Force on Refugees, with me as the only staff person. They jointly signed a letter to the President and then lobbied the Secretary of State and other officials at the State Department. With my contacts from a decade of working inside the U.S. government, I was able to ensure that their letters and requests reached the key decision makers. That two of the governors were Republican made the issue into a bipartisan endeavor for the Democratic administration, adding to its momentum. 

A few months later in June 1979, Governor Ray and Governor Byrne were invited to travel to Geneva, Switzerland, where a special U.N. Conference on the Boat People was being held. Vice President Walter Mondale led the U.S. delegation. 

In a grand hall filled with delegations from around the world, speech after speech was made about how terrible was the plight of these people. Only the Philippines made tangible offer to assist, saying it was prepared to serve as a transit site for refugees. But no other country offered to do anything. With countries speaking in alphabetical order it was toward the end of the conference, when Vice President Mondale came to the rostrum. In a passion-filled speech, he told the assembled delegates that before World War II a ship filled with Jewish refugees was turned away from America’s shores, in a sense, pushed back out to sea like the Boat People. That ship was named the St. Louis. The Vice President then told the hushed audience that everyone on it was sent back to Europe, where most ended up dying in the Holocaust. He said we must never have such a situation again. Then he announced that America would take 168,000 refugees a year. The U.S. was reopening its doors to save the Boat People. In addition, Vice President Mondate said that President Carter was sending the American Navy to search for Boat People at sea and rescue them.

Suddenly, this room full of diplomats from around the world, who usually act in such a reserved, formal manner, spontaneously erupted in cheer. The assembled delegates gave a standing ovation for the United States of America and for this incredible humanitarian action.  When Vice President Mondale returned to the U.S. delegation, Governor Ray rushed to shake his hand. I heard the Governor tell the Vice President that “This is one of the proudest days of my life as an American.” It was such a stirring historic moment. The Boat People were saved thanks to a decision taken late at night by the Governor of Iowa to not turn his back on suffering people. Governor Robert Ray had provided the moral leadership that changed the course of history for these refugees.

An Inspirational Visit From A New Pope

A few months later, on October 4, 1979 there was a historic event in Iowa – Pope John Paul II came to Living History Farms. I had the privilege to be the public security coordinator in the Governor’s office for the event, and thus was present with Governor Ray as three hundred fifty thousand people gathered on those grounds for what was a dramatic interfaith service. There was a Jewish rabbi, a Protestant bishop and a Catholic bishop all praying together with the Holy Father.  

The Pope then gave his homily saying to rural America that you are the stewards of the earth, with the obligation to feed all mankind. Those of us who were there that day could not have imagined the impact of those words, nor the sort of immediate response that would summon. I remember that day the “gifts” – the bread and wine that the Pontiff would use to celebrate the Catholic Mass, were brought up to him by Vietnamese refugees, wearing their colorful native dress, who had resettled in Iowa. It was there at that moment that the image of Iowa that the dying Pope would recall 25 year later was formed: Iowa was “farms”……..and…….. “refugees.”

Iowa SHARES – Saving Cambodian Refugees

Later that same month, Governor Ray and I traveled to China with a group of five other governors as part of an exchange program following the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Governor Ray proposed to the other governors that, since they were going to Asia, the group should make a side trip to Thailand afterwards to see the refugee situation, as there were still many who had been languishing in camps for several years. While not in imminent danger, they were still in need of assistance. 

When our delegation arrived in Thailand, however, we were told there was an emergency situation and that we needed to go to the border to see new refugees who had just escaped from Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge’s strangle hold on that country, in which as many as two million people out of the total population of seven million had already died in just the past four years, had been broken by attacking North Vietnamese forces. Now, for the first time since April 1975, ethnic Cambodian refugees had been able to flee to Thailand. We were unprepared for what we would see. The governors and our party confronted a scene of unprecedented human misery and suffering. Here in an open farm field, in a place called Sa Kaew, were approximately 30,000 starving human beings; emaciated, painfully thin, some falling in place and too weak to pick themselves up. Fifty to a hundred were dying every day, with their bodies bulldozed into common graves. Orphaned children were dying of diarrhea in a makeshift hospital. Only a few bits of food were available, provided by emergency workers who were desperately trying to be of help. It was as if we were witnessing a scene from the Seventh Level of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. 

Everyone in our party was traumatized by what we had seen. It was the only thing the governors and their spouses could talk about on the long flight back to the United States.

It was late night when we arrived back at the Des Moines airport. There, we were met by an enterprising young reporter from the Des Moines Register named David Yepsen. As Governor Ray described the horrendous scene to him, Yepsen asked whether the Governor had any photos. The Governor, who had photographed this unbelievably tragic scene, replied by saying he had several undeveloped rolls of film. Yepsen asked if he could have them. The Governor handed them to him. The film was developed overnight, and the next morning on the front page of the Des Moines Register was the picture of one of these pitiful, emaciated Cambodian refugees, with a quote from the Governor that read, “I watched people die.” 

This headline, and the story and multiple photos inside the paper, spread like an electric current across the state, as readers saw and heard about this unimaginable suffering. Michael Gartner, then the editor of the Des Moines Register, said to me that he was prepared to put his editorial pages behind any effort to assist these refugees. Next, all three of those religious leaders who had been with the Pope only a few weeks earlier came to see the Governor. I remember being in the room as they implored the Governor, saying, “Governor, we have to do something, but we don't know what to do. You are our Governor, our leader. If you can decide what to do, we will support you in every way." It was Bishop Maurice Dingman, Rabbi Jay Goldburg and the Protestant Bishop representing the Churches Coordinating Committee. They left and the Governor turned to me and said, "Well, what are we going to do?" 

That night I had an idea, which I brought to the Governor the next morning. I suggested that we establish a campaign called Iowa SHARES – Iowa Sends Help to Aid Refugees and End Starvation.  We would solicit support from citizens all across the state. Thanks to Michael Gartner, we launched the Iowa SHARES campaign on the day before Thanksgiving with a major feature in both the Des Moines Register and the afternoon Tribune, with a coupon on the editorial page that could be clipped out and sent with money to an address we had hastily arranged, PO Box 1979 in Des Moines. All Iowa SHARES consisted of was this post office box number and a brand new 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that had a bipartisan board, including Gartner, Bishop Dingman and several prominent Democrats like Arthur Davis and Roxanne Conlin. The staff consisted of me and Nicky Schissel from the Governor’s staff and several dedicated volunteers.

The coupon ran every day until Christmas. Iowa Public Television also spread the word about Iowa SHARES with a live interview of the Governor, Mrs. Ray and me conducted by Mary Jane Odell, who later joined the Iowa SHARES board. Soon we had volunteer leaders in major cities around the state, and other newspapers large and small (such as the Jefferson Bee) ran the photos and the coupon. Iowans responded magnificently. They sent money in small, personal contributions. Churches took up second collections on Sunday and schools launched drives. Children gave up Christmas presents and sent in the money their parents gave them. One woman mailed us her wedding rings, saying she had no money but felt she had to help (we sent the rings back to her).

We had raised about $300,000 by mid-December almost all from small contributions from individuals across the state. With this we arranged to ship food and medicine to the Cambodian border in a convoy organized by Catholic Relief Services. Bill Simbro, the Des Moines Register’s religion reporter (and the only one at the paper with a passport) went to cover the delivery. On December 25 – Christmas Day – Iowans awoke to read this headline on the front page of the Register: “Our Gifts Reach Refugees.” In his article, Simbro described how life-sustaining food and medicine funded by thousands of Iowans was in now the hands of refugees 12,000 miles away, halfway around the earth. Iowa’s humanitarian legacy was never more in evidence than on that remarkable Christmas.

Iowa SHARES did not end there. It went on for several years, raising money and providing support through the American Refugee Committee for volunteer Iowa doctors and nurses to work in a rudimentary hospital at a camp called Khao-I-Dang. Other funds were sent deep inside Cambodia through UNICEF to assist badly malnourished children. By the time Iowa SHARES concluded its efforts in 1982, the total raised was above $600,000 – equivalent to about a million and a half dollars in 2015. Thousands of Cambodians were kept from starvation and death thanks to Governor Ray’s humanitarian leadership and the generosity of thousands of Iowans. 

Continued Moral Leadership – A Ray of Freedom

Governor Ray’s global leadership on behalf of refugees continued even after he completed his 14 years as Iowa’s chief executive. He was appointed to several U.S. degations at the United Nations and at conferences hosted by the UN High Commission for Refugees in Geneva. His extraordinary example continues to inspire Iowans even four decades later. His legacy is commemorated in the beautiful Robert D. Ray Asian Garden with a stunning pavilion located along the Des Moines River. It is also embodied in the Robert D. Ray Iowa SHARES Award presented each October at the World Food Prize Hunger Summit to an individual whose efforts to alleviate human suffering best emulate Governor Ray’s actions on behalf of refugees. The 2015 annual festival for Asian cultures in Des Moines had as its theme “A Ray of Freedom,” and 86-year-old former Governor Bob Ray was the guest of honor. The refugees he assisted never forgot who helped them at their moment of greatest need. This was perhaps best illustrated by a story Governor Ray told me. 

In 2009, when the saga of the Boat People had largely faded into memory, Governor Ray was shopping in a large Des Moines grocery store when he crossed paths with an Asian customer also pushing a cart. The man recognized the Governor, and identified himself as a “Boat People” refugee. Shaking hands with the Governor, he said “I want to thank you for saving my life.”

Making Iowa A Symbol of Hope

To sum up, the legacy of Governor Robert D. Ray in regard to refugees from Southeast Asia is divided into three distinct parts: Keeping the Tai Dam culture intact; providing the global, moral leadership that saved the Vietnamese Boat People; and rushing food and medicine to starving Cambodians through Iowa SHARES. 

There is one last story, however, that perhaps best captures the impact of Governor Ray’s leadership. During our 1979 trip to Thailand, we also visited Nong Khai – an established camp that held several thousand Tai Dam refugees who had been waiting years for possible resettlement. When we arrived, there was a big sign welcoming Governor Ray erected by the refugees themselves. As they escorted us into the camp, the Tai Dam leaders said they wanted to show us their “symbol of hope.”  As we were guided toward a thatched hut in the middle of a muddy field we wondered what it might be: perhaps an ancient wood carving; or a historic artifact; or some type of religious icon. But we were unprepared for what was revealed to us as we entered the hut. For there, tacked up on a thatched wall, was the official Iowa Department of Transportation highway map. Taken aback, we walked up to it and saw pins pushed into the map denoting where other Tai Dam refugees had been settled across the state. The leader explained, “This is our hope: to come to Iowa.” 

Standing there, 12,000 miles from home, I realized that Governor Robert D. Ray, the man who would put the words “Iowa” and “refugees” on the lips of a dying pope, had made the shape of our state – the shape of Iowa – the symbol of hope to refugees halfway around the world.


Kenneth M. Quinn, a 32-year career American diplomat from Dubuque, Iowa, served as a member of Governor Robert D. Ray’s staff from September 1978 through September 1982 while on secondment from the U.S. State Department. He later served as U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia and since 2000 has been president of the World Food Prize in Des Moines.

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