By her brother Rick Morain
When Bob Ray died back in
July at the age of 89, I wrote about his successful 14-year stint as a popular
governor of Iowa. The column mentioned Ray’s salvation of thousands of Hmong
refugees who were desperately fleeing persecution and hardship in Vietnam
in the 1970s. Ray opened the state of Iowa to them.
The column omitted another
of Ray’s finest hours, and I want to make amends. It’s a story that still
resonates 39 years later.
In October 1979, Ray and a
top aide, Ken Quinn, joined a group of American governors on a trip to China.
Quinn had served as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia in the early 1970s, and he and
Ray obtained permission for a side trip to a spot in Thailand near the
Their destination was a
large makeshift camp — actually no more than an open field — to which
30,000 exhausted and traumatized Cambodian refugees had fled in their
desperate escape from the Killing Fields of Cambodia’s leader Pol Pot and
his Khmer Rouge communist warriors.
The Khmer Rouge were
committing genocide. They killed two million of Cambodia’s seven million souls.
What Ray and Quinn saw
there was unbelievable.
The refugees had no food,
no shelter and precious few possessions.
Men, women and children
were dying from starvation and other causes in the camp, 30 to 50 a day.
Ray personally saw
five people die.
Shocked, he and Quinn upon
their return were interviewed by Jefferson native David Yepsen, at that time a
reporter for the Des Moines Register. Yepsen’s story was the lead on the front
page of the Register the next day, together with jaw-dropping photos of
refugees that Ray had snapped at the Thailand camp.
Back in the governor’s office
the next day, Ray talked with staff members about what Iowa could do to
help. Quinn came up with Iowa SHARES: Iowa Sends Help to Aid Refugees and End
The plan was simple: ask
the people of Iowa to donate money to buy food and other aid for the refugees.
The response was classic
Michael Gartner, editor of
the Register, called Ray to say that whatever the state undertook, the
Register’s editorial pages would support, and the news columns sent the word
across the state. An interfaith coalition of religious leaders — Catholic,
Protestant and Jewish — came out in full endorsement.
Iowa Public Television’s
Mary Jane Odell and Dan Miller helped publicize the effort. Well-known Des
Moines leaders, like Roxanne Conlin, Sheldon Rabinowitz, A. Arthur Davis and
Bruce Campbell, stepped up to help do the details.
And Iowans sent money. Boy,
did they send money.
Between Thanksgiving and
Christmas, envelopes came rolling into the governor’s office with cash and
checks, over $125,000 in five weeks.
Over the next two years,
some $550,000 was raised from small contributions from thousands of Iowans, the
equivalent of about $2 million in 2018 dollars. A youngster sent in his Christmas
money. A woman sent her wedding rings, noting that she had little money but
“the Cambodians really need our help.” (Her rings were returned to her, and a
cash contribution was made in her name.)
A dozen Iowa doctor and
nurse volunteers sped to the camp on the Thailand – Cambodia border to provide
life-saving health care to the refugees.
The caravan of food trucks
from Iowa SHARES reached the camp on Christmas Day 1979.
On Monday this week, Ambassador
Quinn, now president of the World Food Prize Foundation headquartered in Des
Moines, honored 14 individuals and organizations that helped make Iowa SHARES
such a success. They received the 2018 Robert D. Ray Iowa SHARES Humanitarian
I had a call from Quinn a couple weeks ago. He said
he recalled that the Jefferson Bee and Herald had been one of the first
Iowa weekly newspapers to spread the word about Iowa SHARES.
He wanted to honor the Bee
and Herald for doing so, and invited me to attend the ceremony to receive one
of the awards.
I told Quinn that I very
much appreciated his offer, but that I didn’t recall that we had done any
special publicity of the effort back in 1979.
Quinn was adamant.
He said he had been impressed
that a weekly would jump in so soon with the effort, and he was determined to
present the award.
So I went to the Jefferson
Public Library and enlisted the help of librarian Jane Millard in finding
the 1979 articles in the online storage of the newspapers.
As it turned out, Quinn’s
memory was better than mine. The Bee and Herald had publicized Iowa SHARES with
several articles, including a fine “Cogitations of an Old Codger”
column by Fred Morain. Dad had retired as editor-publisher in 1976, but had
begun his weekly column.
So Kathy and I attended the
awards luncheon at the Downtown Marriott in Des Moines on Monday, and Quinn honored the Bee and
Herald with the award, along with 13 other recipients, all of whom had much
more to do with the success of Iowa SHARES than I did.
In Quinn’s defense, he
wanted to include as many groups that helped out as possible, and that included
weekly newspapers. I appreciated that, and accepted the award on behalf of the
many weeklies that stepped up back in 1979.
Ray’s effort didn’t wipe
out hunger, of course.
That scourge continues today,
even in Iowa. Statistics show that hundreds of thousands of Iowans aren’t certain
they will have enough to eat from day to day.
As winter approaches, here
and elsewhere, the best way to honor Bob Ray and the spirit of Iowa generosity
that he embodied is to help hungry people today. There’s no shortage of
recipient choices, from the local food pantry and low-income students in the
school’s lunch program to refugees from drought and violence around the world.
We can’t alleviate all hunger.
But we can help with some.
Food is closely
identified with Iowa around the world, and we can certainly share some of