Kenneth M. Quinn

Ray made Iowa a symbol of hope

One of the first refugees Gov. Ray rescued and resettled in Iowa was a young man who was trapped in one of the most treacherous environments on Earth — Washington, D.C.

That person he rescued was me.

He brought me home to Iowa for four years. I worked closely with the governor on many of his humanitarian endeavors.

A few weeks ago, I was with Governor and Mrs. Ray recalling many of these experiences — and a flood of memories came back when we were together.

• In the winter of 1975, at the celebration for the Tai Dam, whom he had resettled together in order to preserve their culture, language and kinship.

They had written to every governor in America, but Bob Ray was the only governor to answer their plea. He convinced the president to permit all of the Tai Dam to come to Iowa.

• Or, on a cold January night in 1979, while he and I watched the video of a boat filled with Vietnamese “boat people” refugees, who had escaped from communist oppression only to be pushed back out to sea by countries fearful of being inundated because no country in the world, including the United States, was accepting any more refugees from Indochina.

They were drowning before our eyes.

This led him to write that very night to President Carter saying that Iowa would double the number of refugees it had resettled, if the president would only reopen America’s doors.

• And six months later, we were together in Geneva, Switzerland, at the U.N. conference on the Boat People, where in June 1979 Vice President Walter Mondale announced that America would accept 168,000 new refugees each year.

The assembled diplomatic delegations gave a spontaneous standing ovation to America’s humanitarian leadership, a leadership that began when Robert D. Ray became the first governing official anywhere in the world to say he would accept the boat people refugees.

• In October 1979, when the Governor and Mrs. Ray and I were at a place called Sa Kaew in Thailand, where 30,000 victims of the Cambodian genocide were lying strewn across a field dying at the rate of 50-100 a day, with their bodies bulldozed into mass graves — this led to his creating Iowa SHARES. Iowa Sends Help to Aid Refugees and End Starvation. That rushed food and medicine and doctors and nurses to save thousands.

• Or in Nong Khai in Thailand, where the Tai Dam refugees took us to see their symbol of hope, which was the Iowa Department of Transportation highway map tacked up on a wall.

Gov. Robert Ray had made the shape of our state a symbol of hope for people languishing in refugee camps 12,000 miles from Iowa.

And there was one event where neither the governor nor I were present.

In 2004, the Bishop of Des Moines visited a very ill Pope John Paul II. When the pope heard “Iowa,” he said, “Iowa ... farms ... refugees.”

The man who put the word refugees on the lips of a dying pope and made the shape of Iowa a symbol of hope around the world was Gov. Robert D. Ray.

What was common in all of these settings was that Gov. Ray was driven by moral impulses planted deep inside him by his parents, the educational institutions he attended, and his religion, and nurtured by his wife Billie and his children.

When confronted by scenes of human suffering, Robert Ray responded, not as a politician doing electoral calculations, but as a Christian following a moral imperative from the parable of the Good Samaritan.

He saw that his obligation was to his fellow human beings who were suffering and dying, even if the color of their skin, the language they spoke and the religion they followed were all different from his own.

Or, even if they were thousands and thousands miles away on the other side of our planet, or adrift in the ocean.

Through his actions, Gov. Bob Ray answered the eternal question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Even though the impact of Robert Ray’s leadership would often occur far from Iowa, the one story that perhaps best captures Robert Ray’s humanitarian legacy and his place in the pantheon of Iowa’s greatest heroes took place not in the governor’s office or far from Iowa, but in a supermarket in West Des Moines about 10 years ago.

As Gov. Ray described it to me, he and Mrs. Ray were shopping for groceries, pushing their cart down the aisle, and as can happen, they almost bumped into a cart being pushed by another shopper, an Asian man.

When he saw it was Gov. Ray, the man stopped, walked over to the governor and, extending his hand, said, “You saved my life. I just want to say thank you.”

Today, thousands of Tai Dam, Lao, Hmong, Cambodians or Vietnamese who live in Iowa just want to say thank you. In a very real sense, Gov. Robert Ray saved all of them.

On behalf of all of us whom you made so proud to say we are Iowans — we just want to say thank you.

Gov. Ray, you uplifted my life. You uplifted all of our lives. And your legacy will uplift countless, thousands and thousands of others far into the future.

Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn delivered this eulogy July 13 for former Iowa Gov. Robert D. Ray at First Christian Church in Des Moines.

Contact Us

Jefferson Bee & Herald
Address: 200 N. Wilson St.
Jefferson, IA 50129

Phone:(515) 386-4161