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The Borlaug Blog

When Iowans Changed the World

By Michael Gartner
2018 Iowa SHARES Award Recipient

Nearly 40 years ago, Ken Quinn wondered if I’d meet him after work for a drink. He had an idea, he said. The idea was quite simple: Change the world. And Iowans did.

At the time, Quinn was working for Gov. Robert Ray and I was the editor of The Des Moines Register and Des Moines Tribune. When we met that autumn evening in 1979, Quinn and the Governor had just returned from refugee camps in Thailand, and Ken had detailed the tragedy of the genocide occurring in Cambodia and the awfulness for those who were escaping to the Thai border.

Ray, too, had been deeply affected. “I watched people die,” the Governor told Iowans when he returned.

We in Iowa must help the people there, Quinn said. He believed that if we called on Iowans to contribute, the Governor would find a way to send food and medicine to the tens of thousands of people near that border of Thailand and Cambodia. And then he paused — Ken Quinn rarely pauses — and just kind of looked at me.

And I said that, sure, The Register would help. I said we’d support the program — it came to be known as Iowa SHARES — on the editorial pages of The Register and the Tribune and that we’d cover the project in the news section. I told him we’d run a coupon every day until Christmas in the editorial pages — a coupon asking for money.

It was an easy call. One function of a newspaper is to embrace causes that make the world a better place, and what better cause was there that Christmas? (Another function is to report the news, and Ken was a bit nonplussed a few days later when the afternoon Tribune first reported on the plan the day before he planned to announce it. He sort of understood, I think, when I explained that I was proud of the reporters.)

We launched the coverage and began running the coupon around Thanksgiving. The money poured in. Children sent their Christmas money. A woman sent her engagement and wedding rings. (They were returned.) The total exceeded $300,000 by Christmas — and the Ray-Quinn machine then scurried to find ways to get truckloads of food and medicine to the Cambodian border.

With help from Catholic Relief Services, the shipment arrived on Christmas Day. Register reporter Bill Simbro was there to report the story. Datelined Bangkok, it began:

“The first convoy carrying Iowa’s gift of life to thousands of starving and disease-ridden refugees left here shortly after midnight today on the first leg of a precarious journey to Cambodia….

“The provisions are being carried in 20 rickety old trucks over bad roads to an as-yet undisclosed location inside Cambodia, a nation whose political instability makes relief efforts difficult.”

The overloaded trucks carried bags of rice, salted fish, dried meat, soybeans, sugar and salt. They carried penicillin, antibiotic tablets, 500,000 multivitamin tablets and surgical instruments. They transported axes and saws and tents and blankets and shovels and cooking pots and bowls, Simbro reported. And they delivered fresh fruit and candy as Christmas gifts for the 17,000 Cambodian children in the camps.

Everything was labeled as a gift from Iowans.

The next day, Simbro reported from a refugee camp 200 miles from Bangkok and 11,000 miles from Iowa.

“Christmas Day in the steamy jungle near the Thailand-Cambodia border is both haunting and inspiring,” he told Register readers. “I shall be haunted by memories of the unspeakable tragedies that have befallen this beautiful part of the world. I shall be inspired by the memories of being the only Iowan here when my state put the message of Christmas into action.”

10/15/2018 8:00 AM |Add a comment |Comments (3)
Wonderful idea generated and executed by two outstanding gentlemen Governor Robert D. Ray and Ambassador Kenneth Quinn. Thank you to Des Moines Register. I was honored to contribute to this project many years ago and a warm spot in my heart remains for the opportunity to support this worthy cause.

Sarah LANDE | | 10/15/2018 4:16 PM
What a project that was! And for all of us who were around Iowa back then, being able to read those few dramatic lines from Bill Simbro's stories again gives us goose bumps. Thanks to all of you who were directly involved.

Chuck Offenburger | | | 10/15/2018 12:51 PM
That was Iowa at its best, political leadership (Gov. Ray) at its best, and journalism at its best. I was privileged to know and be friends with both Gov. Ray and Bill Simbro. I wish I knew Michael Gartner personally. I enjoy his writing.

George Hanusa | | 10/15/2018 12:42 PM
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