Monday, July 09, 2018

Robert D. Ray and the Luangnikones ....

Robert D. Ray, a five-term Iowa governor honored and respected I think by all who remember him, died Sunday morning in Des Moines at the age of 89. 

I've been thinking about him this morning in relation to my old friends, the Luangnikones --- going on 40 years after we first met as they came off a plane at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in the dead of winter, direct from a refugee camp in Thailand, to begin a new life in the little town of Thompson, Iowa.

I had returned from Vietnam some years earlier, finished up a master's degree at the University of Iowa for lack of anything better to do, then gone to work in the community newspapers of Winnebago County. In 1980, I was editor of two small weeklies there and the apartment the community had prepared for the Luangnikones was upstairs, above my office.

Some of this may seem familiar to long-time readers; I'll freely admit to recycling parts of a Lucas Countyan post from several years ago.


I remember how this classic American success story began, on a cold late January afternoon when several of us piled into a big van on main street in Thompson, way up there not far from the Minnesota state line. I cannot for the life of me remember who else was along, although the faces of Barb Johnson and Barb Stenberg keep popping into my head.

We drove up to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, parked in a ramp, bundled up and then walked into the terminal to await the arrival of our family --- and by "our" I mean the entire community. I was among several more or less official sponsors, but the offer to shelter this large family of refugees from Laos had been made by the entire community.

We were standing there near their flight's gate when they came off the plane and into the terminal --- a party of nine ranging in age from 40-something down to under 5, exhausted after the series of flights that had brought them here from a Thai refugee camp, all wearing heavy winter coats that had been provided somewhere along the line, carrying all that they possessed. It was one of those moments you never forget.

I could not for the life of me find the family photo I took later that year, so this one will have to do although it includes members of the Luangnikones' extended family, driven to Thompson from Illinois by a sponsor for a reunion not long after they had arrived. It was taken in the apartment above my office where they lived. Synhom Luangnikone is seated at far right on the sofa; his wife, Bounlune, one person over to the left; and Phetsarath Luangnikone, Synhom's younger brother, seated at left in the foreground. Six of the younger folks --- wonderful kids --- were (and still are) Synhom's and Bounlune's children.


Iowa was a national leader during the late 1970s and 1980s in resettlement of refugees from Vietnam and Laos, thanks in large part to the leadership of Robert D. Ray --- a wonderful gentleman,  arguably Iowa's last truly great governor.

Thompson's story was repeated in cities large and small all across Iowa during those years as the entire state opened its arms.

Ray was sworn in as Iowa's governor during January of 1975. Early in his term, Vietnam fell to communist forces and many of those who had been affiliated with U.S. and allied war efforts there --- as many as 130,000 --- fled. Cambodia already had fallen; Laos fell shortly after. U.S. policies regarding admission of refugees were bulky and slow --- but President Ford altered that. Among other initiatives, he offered the governors of all states $500 per refugee if they would help in resettlement efforts.

Ray --- and Iowa --- were among the first to respond --- and money was not the motive. Gov. Ray wrote later, "I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, ‘Let those people die’. We wouldn’t want the rest of the world to say that about us if we were in the same situation… Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you."

He formed The Governor's Task Force on Indochinese Resettlement and Iowa quickly became the national leader in resettlement efforts.

One of his first accomplishments was to overcome a State Department directive that forbade resettlement of large numbers of refugees in one place. Due to his efforts, more than 1,400 Tai Dam people were allowed to settle together in Iowa.

Iowa's outstanding effort continued well into the 1980s, when refugee numbers began to decline.


The Luangnikones were living, I believe, at Savannakhet, Laos, when their nation fell to communist forces, endangering their lives. They fled their homeland --- a harrowing journey --- with little more than what they were wearing, eventually reaching a refugee camp in Thailand and safety. They remained there until cleared for admission to the United States and resettlement in Iowa, thanks Robert D. Ray's leadership and the generosity of its people.

Preparing for their arrival, we lined up an apartment, filled it with household goods and personal supplies and solicited the monthly pledges that would be necessary to help support them. The U.S. government provided transportation, some state aid was available and the family was entitled to such social services as were available at the time. Lutheran Social Services was among cooperating agencies involved. But it would not have been possible to sustain them in Thompson without the generosity of its people.

I was fortunate enough to spend a good deal of time with the family --- their apartment was just upstairs, after all. My neighbors in west Thompson, Barb and Duane Johnson, made extraordinary efforts to take the family under their wing. We figured out how to round up the glutenous rice that was a staple of their diet and there were shopping trips to Minneapolis and Des Moines to round up other supplies at specialty grocery stores. (I was lucky enough to share many wonderful meals.)

The kids enrolled in school, something of a challenge since their English was limited. But everyone got along.

And yes, some Iowans were not on board. Some of the objections were purely racist, others argued "foreigners" should not be taking Iowans' jobs --- although most of the jobs taken by the refugees were far below their skill levels or potential. They were Buddhist, not Christian, and no one cared; no one was pressured to attend church.

Our biggest hurdle in Winnebago County was finding employment for Synhom and Phetsarath, who very much wanted to work. The jobs just were not forthcoming.

Later on that year, the Luangnikones relocated to Illinois with our blessing. There were job opportunities there and a significant Lao community to provide mutual aid and support. Phetsarath eventually settled in Washington.


I liked what our current governor, Kim Reynolds, had to say in a statement issued after her predecessor's death: "Gov. Ray's legacy lives on in the millions of people that he impacted as a tremendous statesman for Iowa and our nation. His civility, courage and common-sense governing set a high standard for those who followed,"

The Des Moines Register also quoted Ken Quinn, president of the World Food Prize Foundation, who served on Ray's staff 1978-82: “The openness and honesty that characterized Bob Ray’s administration, and the extraordinary moral leadership he demonstrated toward suffering refugees from Indochina imbued state government with a high level of integrity. He changed forever the culture and diversity of our state’s population and caused Iowa to be seen as the humanitarian heartland of America.”

The best way, I suspect, for all of us to honor the late governor's memory is to live as best we can by his example.

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