In 1999, having completed my tenure as U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Cambodia, I accepted John Ruan III’s offer to return home to Iowa and assume leadership of the World Food Prize Foundation.
I was leaving my assignment on the Mekong River to, in effect, come full circle on my diplomatic odyssey that had begun in 1964. Then, I drove across the Mississippi River from my home in Dubuque, Iowa to travel to Madison, Wisconsin to take the Foreign Service Exam that would lead to my State Department career.
Now, 35 years later, having literally gone from “The Killing Fields” to “The Field of Dreams,” I found I had two dreams to fulfill:
Norman Borlaug’s aspiration that the World Food Prize could come to be seen as the equivalent of a “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture,” and
John Ruan Sr.’s vision of central Iowa being the “Food and Agricultural Capital of America.”
Sitting in a small, two-room office at the end of a dark corridor on the 10th floor of the Ruan office building in Des Moines, I questioned my judgment in retiring from the State Department to take on what now seemed like Mission Impossible. After all, I had only one employee, and the World Food Prize was essentially a one-day event that attracted only 25 to 30 people from outside Iowa.
Adding to those extremely limited prospects was the fact that aside from John Ruan’s generous endowment and an appropriation from the State of Iowa, there were only four donors who contributed a total of $45,000 to support World Food Prize programs. It seemed that, once again, I had made a “wrong turn” in my career.
Still, I thought I should give it my best shot. With Norman Borlaug’s extraordinary legacy of humanitarian achievements and John Ruan’s financial support, it appeared that we should be able to make some headway. I was very fortunate that for the next 10 years Norm and I became partners in my efforts to fulfill their dreams.
In this regard, it is essential that I also recognize the critical role played by John Ruan III in all of my endeavors. For the overwhelming majority of my tenure as President, John Ruan III was the Foundation Chairman, and he and I served as the entire legal governing body of the World Food Prize Foundation.
It was only with John’s trust in my plans and his confidence in me that we were able to transform the World Food Prize into the internationally renowned organization that it has become, attracting over 1,500 participants to Iowa each October for a week-long series of events, in addition to other impactful programs during the year.
John Ruan III has my unending gratitude for giving me one of the most incredible professional opportunities of my entire life.
I was also aided in those early years by several individuals who had played an important role in shaping the first decade of the Prize’s existence. Among the key individuals serving on the “Executive Committee” were the first Chairman of the Prize A.S. “Al” Clausi and one of Dr. Borlaug’s closest collaborators Dr. Robert Havener. Dr. Borlaug’s aide-de-camp Chris Dowswell was also a valued informal advisor.
From that small, two-person office we occupied in 1999, our staff gradually increased in size as we relocated to a larger office suite on the 17th floor of the main Ruan tower. In 2013 we moved into the spectacularly restored Norman E. Borlaug Hall of Laureates, where our now 10-person staff is coordinated by my absolutely essential partner of 12 years, Vice President Mashal Husain. She and I led the $36 million fundraising campaign and managed the construction project that transformed the former Des Moines Public Library Building into the new home of the World Food Prize as well as a magnificent conference center and museum.
The individuals I chose to serve on our Foundation staff have been essential collaborators in carrying forward Norm and John’s vision and making the World Food Prize Foundation programs models of efficient and highly effective implementation. Whatever credit accrued to me for our achievements over the past two decades, they were only possible with the staff’s committed involvement, the dedication of our volunteers, docents and interns and the generous financial support of our more than 70 donors and the State of Iowa.
In looking back, I believe our most significant achievements over the past 20 years can be seen as falling into the following categories:
Elevating Dr. Borlaug’s stature so he would be seen as Iowa’s greatest hero, and one of the most significant agricultural scientists in all human history. I was stunned by how few people knew that Norm had “saved more lives than any other person who ever lived.” Included in this endeavor were my initiating the process by which he would in 2007 receive the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian recognition, and then my chairing the Committee to install his statue in the U.S. Capitol on March 25, 2014, the exact centennial anniversary of his birth;
Creating a Laureate Award Ceremony at the magnificent Iowa State Capitol- - that gives the presentation of the World Food Prize the stature of a Nobel Prize; and expanding the awarding of the World Food Prize so that women as well as experts and scientists from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East have, over the last 20 years, become recipients of the Prize. We partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to create the Borlaug Field Award, the top international honor for scientists under the age of 40. I inaugurated our Laureate Announcement at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. with the participation of Secretaries of State, bringing expanded awareness to our Prize;
Shaping the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium so it would be seen as the “Davos of Global Agriculture,” with speakers including Kofi Annan, Tony Blair,Princess Haya bint Al-Hussein, multiple agri-business CEOs and African smallholder farmers and Bill Gates, who launched his multi-billion dollar initiative to end global poverty at the World Food Prize. We also hosted the U.S.-China High Level Agricultural Symposium in 2012 at which then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping gave the keynote address;
Expanding the World Food Prize youth education programs to inspire the next generation of high school students to be leaders in combating hunger. The number of students impacted by our programs increased from 25 in my first year, all from Iowa, to over 10,000 from 26 U.S. states and 10 foreign countries in 2019. This is accomplished through our Global Youth Institute, Borlaug-Ruan International Internships, Wallace-Carver USDA Fellowships, the Iowa Youth Institute and Youth Institutes in 23 other states, and now international expansion to Wageningen University in the Netherlands and Zamorano University in Honduras;
Promoting the theme of Peace Through Agriculture by linking the issues of national security and global food security, emphasizing the role that combining upgraded rural roads and improved seeds can play in both poverty alleviation and conflict prevention, and highlighting how confronting hunger can bring diverse people together across significant differences, be they ethnic, cultural, religious, political, or diplomatic. The presentation of our Prize to Daniel Hillel, the Israeli irrigation pioneer, having been nominated by three Muslim scientists, with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in attendance, was the most dramatic demonstration of this “Pax Agricultura;”
Endeavoring to make Central Iowa and Des Moines be seen as the Hunger Fighting Capital of America through our Iowa Hunger Summit, Iowa Hunger Directory, Laureate Lecture Series, Hoover-Wallace Dinners and the presentation to Iowa’s leading hunger fighters of our Governor Robert D. Ray Iowa SHARES Humanitarian Award. I gave hundreds of public speeches and presentations in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, “putting Iowa on the world map,”and identifying Des Moines as the home of “one of the most significant observances of World Food Day (October 16) anywhere around the globe;”
Integrating art and music into our World Food Prize ceremonies and programs in order to recognize and inspire great achievements in agricultural science and in reducing hunger, poverty, and malnutrition. Artists like Ray Charles, Leslie Odom Jr. and the Tokyo String Quartet performed at our Laureate Award Ceremony. In addition, I commissioned the creation of The Symphony to the Prairie Farm and its world premiere by the Des Moines Symphony Orchestra, and the Laureate Call, an original choral piece. As Chair of the Norman Borlaug Statue Committee, I led the selection of Benjamin Victor to sculpt the statue of Norm that stands in Statuary Hall. ,
Leading the $36 million historic restoration of the 19th century designed Des Moines Public Library, and its transformation into the spectacular Dr. Norman E. Borlaug Hall of Laureates. With $4 million in original art, LEED Platinum status in energy efficiency and a 100 year lease, this magnificent Beaux Arts architectural treasure will serve as the home of the World Food Prize and inspire efforts to end hunger well into the 22nd century. I am particularly proud of my concept and design for the 20 foot tall stained glass window that dominates the grand staircase and is the central artwork in the entire building.
In striving to accomplish these objectives, I endeavored to have our World Food Prize Foundation programs operate in a manner that promotes economic development in Iowa. We bring more agri-business and food company CEOs to Iowa than any other organization, and our programs and projects have contributed over $100 million into the Iowa economy, with the great majority contributed after my return in 1999. We have also attracted over 100,000 visitors to tour our Hall of Laureates, thus enhancing Des Moines as a tourist destination. At the same time, we provide unique educational experiences that have encouraged thousands of high school students to study agricultural science and STEM subjects. Of special note, over $300,000 in scholarships have been awarded to students who have participated in World Food Prize youth education programs to study at Iowa State University.
Leading the World Food Prize and endeavoring to fulfill the vision of Norman Borlaug and John Ruan has been an extraordinary privilege, one that I never could have imagined when I arrived back in Des Moines from Cambodia in 1999. What at first seemed like an impossible quest—to have the World Food Prize come to be seen as the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture”—has over the last 20 years become a dream come true.
After thinking initially that in going from Indochina to Iowa I had made a “wrong turn,” I had, in fact, found the “right road.” For the past two decades, I have felt that I was the luckiest person in Iowa. With the support of four governors and the bipartisan leadership of the State Legislature, the generosity of our numerous donors, the wise counsel of our Council of Advisors, the inspiration of our World Food Prize Laureates and the incredibly dedicated efforts of my amazing World Food Prize staff as well as the dozens and dozens of interns, docents and volunteer members of our Reserve Corps who make all of our programs and the Hall of Laureates building so compelling, we have achieved far more than anyone would have imagined possible.
Together, we have: turned the Laureate Award Ceremony at the State Capitol into the “Oscars of Agriculture”; made the Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium into the “premier conference in the world on Global Agriculture”; built our Global Youth Education programs into the “crown jewel of the Iowa and American (and now international) high school experience”; and transformed the Hall of Laureates into a stunning architectural treasure and symbol of energy efficiency honoring the Norman Borlaug’s achievements and those of the World Food Prize Laureates, telling the stories of Iowa’s amazing agricultural and humanitarian heritage and highlighting the 10,000 year history of human agriculture as the thread of civilization.
With all of these accomplishments in mind, I announced on March 25 that I would be retiring as President of the World Food Prize on January 3, 2020. As that day approaches, I especially want to convey my most heartfelt appreciation to three groups:
First to John Ruan III and the Ruan family. It was John III who convinced me to return home to Iowa, and with his vision for the Des Moines Public Library building, gave me one of the greatest opportunities of my life. John and Janis Ruan have been wonderful friends with whom we shared marvelous adventures, and the entire Ruan family has been endlessly encouraging and supportive.
Second, to my incredible partner of the last 12 years, our Vice President Mashal Husain, and all of the individuals who have served on our Foundation staff. Without Mashal’s unending loyalty, selfless dedication and wise counsel, I could not have achieved all that I did and without her critical involvement, the Hall of Laureates would not be the treasure that it is. My incredibly dedicated World Food Prize Foundation staff members were my essential collaborators in all we achieved in implementing our programs and building our Award into the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.”
Finally, to my wife Le Son and our three children Davin, Shandon and Kelly, who have been my endless source of inspiration and support in all of my endeavors for the last 45 years, enduring danger and significant physical hardships on multiple occasions along the way. Our journey together and love for each other has been the central existential element of my entire life.
To have worked with Norman Borlaug for 10 years was one of the most unexpected but fulfilling experiences of my life. When we first met in 1999, and Norm was understandably wary about what someone he viewed as a fancy-pants diplomat and city kid from Dubuque would do leading his Foundation, I pledged to him my unending efforts to carry forward his vision. We bonded over my experience as “a foot soldier in the Green Revolution” while serving in villages in the Mekong Delta in the 1960s, and our shared view of the central role played by improved rural roads and enhanced seeds in uplifting people out of poverty. I think of it as the “Borlaug-Quinn Theorem.”
In September 2009, when I visited Norm for the last time in Dallas just a few days before his death, I sat by his side holding his hand as he lapsed in and out of consciousness. At one point, Norm opened his eyes and, squeezing my hand, said to me, “Ken, I am so grateful...” and then his voice trailed off. Those were the last words Norman Borlaug ever spoke to me.
Norm, it is I who am saying how grateful I am to you—for the unparalleled opportunity you gave me to be part of your historic journey and to carry forward your legacy by leading the World Food Prize Foundation for the last 20 years. As I step away, I feel confident that everyone who has been inspired by our World Food Prize Foundation programs and the Hall of Laureates, and all of those who will be inspired by them far into the future, will carry forward this legacy toward that great objective we worked on together, eradicating hunger from the face of the earth.
A story of strength of character, of perseverance, and of good decisions. What a legacy you are leaving Amb. Quinn. God a bless, Jody
Jody Beimer | Beimerbeimer@gmail.com | 01/04/2020 1:49 PM
Margaret Farrell Perkins and I wish you the best in your retirement, and keep the Christmas card coming with your family updates! All the best in the next decade!
Chip Perkins | Chip.email@example.com | 01/02/2020 7:56 PM
Like St. Paul, Ambassador, you have, in Vietnam, Cambodia, Washington, D.C., and Des Moines, and other distant and near places - "fought the good fight" and have wonderfully "finished the race." God's blessings to you and family, Tim Lavelle
Tim Lavelle | firstname.lastname@example.org | 01/02/2020 4:00 PM
Congratulations Ambassador Quinn on a remarkable and impact filled career. The World Food Prize has elevated global food security dialog and continues to plant the seeds for a hunger free world.
Beth Keck | 01/02/2020 10:12 AM
Ken It has been a deep privilege to get to know you. Your words a few years ago that "the insurgence begins where the road ends and crops fail" are so deeply relevant and should motivate us to learn more deeply from your decades of experience. Everyone in your presence knows they are experiencing the essence of decency, selflessness and a commitment to ending hunger and poverty. I look forward to being inspired. With the deepest admiration and thanks, Derek
Derek Yach | Yachswins@gmail.com | 01/01/2020 9:01 PM
Ken, for you, Le Son and Davin, Shandon and Kelly, Maggie and I are delighted. Service to community, service to country and service to the world - that is quite a record, and the rest of us just feel inspired thinking about what you've accomplished. Take care.
Bob Pearson | email@example.com | 12/31/2019 1:43 PM
Ambassador Quinn, I salute you for fulfilling Dr. Borlaug’s aspiration that the World Food Prize would continue to inspire stakeholders to eliminate hunger from the world.
Jitendra Srivastava | Jitendras573@gmail.com | 12/30/2019 5:20 PM
I attended the World Food Prize event in October for the first time. It was an amazing informative event and Ambassador Quinn was a shining example of how one person can indeed make a major difference in the quality of life of others. Roy S. Ryniker
Roy S. Ryniker | firstname.lastname@example.org | 12/30/2019 4:02 PM
Dear Ambassador Quinn, What a wonderful tribute to you, Dr. Borlaug and the World Food Prize. Congratulations on all you and your team has accomplished! It has been a pleasure to report about your many successes in Agri Marketing magazine over the years. We held our wedding reception in the World Food Prize. The many friends I have who are farmers said, "Wow, this makes us even more proud to be in agriculture." Dr.Borlaug, Mr Ruan and you have certainly accomplished what you set out to do. Wishing you all the best in your future plans and I thank you for that. Lynn Henderson, Publisher Agri Marketing magazine Adel, Iowa
Ambassador Quinn, Dreams fulfilled is a perfect title for an inspiring article highlighting the amazing work of the World Food Prize over the past 20 years under your leadership. May you enjoy a happy retirement, knowing the critical role you played in saving lives. Thank you for your leadership.
Rowena Crosbie | email@example.com | 12/30/2019 1:32 PM
Ambassador Quinn to have spent a few hours with you over the last several years I feel I've amassed the equivalent of a graduate degree in Servant Leadership. Forever grateful. You're an Iowa and a national treasure. Jeff
Jeff Weld | Weld@IowaSTEM.gov | 12/30/2019 12:24 PM