Deb Burnight’s Story: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

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 Cambodian border.

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 Starvation.

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 Iowan.

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 Award.

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 it. 

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