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Former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, dead at 89, remembered as champion of Vietnam War refugees

"There's an excitement about being able to help other people, particularly in the governor's office. Money isn't the only reason you exist."
by Charles Lam /
Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, left, and his wife escort Republican vice presidential candidate Robert Dole and his wife upon their arrival at the Des Moines airport 1976.
Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, left, and his wife escort Republican vice presidential candidate Robert Dole and his wife upon their arrival at the Des Moines airport 1976.AP file

Thomas Baccam calls the late Iowa Gov. Robert Ray the “godfather” of the state's Tai Dam community.

In 1975, members of the Tai Dam — an ethnic group originally from Northwest Vietnam — wrote letters to governors in 30 states asking to be resettled together as a group, contrary to the then preferred U.S. policy of dispersing refugees across states.

After reading the letter, Ray traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby the federal government for an exemption to bring the group to Iowa. Between 1975 and 1977, about 1,200 Tai Dam resettled there, according to Matthew Walsh, a professor of history at Des Moines Area Community College.

“We didn’t want to spread out,” Baccam, president of the Tai Studies Center and Tai Village Inc. in Des Moines recalled.

His groups honored Ray in 2013 by naming part of a community center after him, “so the new generation will know the person who brought us to this country as the group,” Baccam said. “I consider him as one of the great governors for humanitarian aid.“

Ray died Sunday morning at the age of 89, Kenneth Quinn, former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia and a member of Ray’s staff from 1978 to 1982, confirmed to NBC News. He had fought a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.

He was motivated by this deeply impacted ethic to help people were suffering, even though there’d be no political gain in fact there was some political negatives.

Born Robert Dolph Ray in Des Moines on Sept. 26, 1928, according to The Associated Press, he graduated from the Drake University law school in 1954 and became active in Republican politics, eventually considered a leader of the party’s moderate wing.

During his tenure as governor of Iowa from 1969 to 1983, Ray helped thousands of Southeast Asian refugees resettle in the state.

In 1975, he started a program to resettle the Tai Dam, making Iowa the only state government to do so. As more refugees fled Southeast Asia in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, Iowa agreed to resettle more, becoming one of the largest resettlement locations in the U.S., according to The Associated Press.

Ray also advocated for the Refugee Act of 1980 — which formalized the admittance of refugees into the U.S. — and lobbied international officials at a 1979 United Nations conference to accept more Vietnamese boat people.

“He was such a decent person,” Quinn said. “He would describe the refugees as — ‘They’re people. They’re suffering just like you and me.’ And even though they didn’t look like him, they didn’t speak the same language, he was — like the good Samaritan — saw people suffering and stepped forward to help.”

The Tai Dam community has been successful in Iowa, Walsh, who wrote a book about Ray and the Tai Dam community, said. There are approximately 10,000 in Iowa today, he noted, the largest such group outside of Asia.

RAY
Former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray speaks during a celebration of World Refugee Day in Des Moines in 2003.Charlie Neibergall / AP file

At the 2013 welcome center dedication, one woman called Ray the Tai Dam’s “Abraham Lincoln,” Walsh added. “He’s seen as freeing them from their Communist persecution.”

The refugee community has also enriched Iowa. In 1960, approximately 89 percent of Iowa’s foreign-born population came from Europe, with 2.8 from Asia, according to Walsh’s research. By the 1990 Census, the state’s Asia-born population accounted for 43 percent of all foreign-born Iowans.

“Sometimes, people think Iowa is a land of all white farmers — and that’s a stereotype — but in reality, we’re very diverse, and a lot of this diversity is Gov. Ray starting this refugee program,” Walsh said.

In a November 2011 interview with The Associated Press, Ray told the news service that his method of governing was to “just decide what the right thing to do is, and then we'll decide how to promote it.”

That came despite the possibility that his decisions wouldn’t be popular. One August 1975 poll found that 51 percent of Iowans opposed resettling more Vietnam War refugees in the U.S., according to Walsh’s research.

“He was motivated by this deeply impacted ethic to help people were suffering, even though there’d be no political gain in fact there was some political negatives,” Quinn said. “But he also wanted to do what he thought was the right thing.

In the 2011 interview, Ray noted that he was especially proud of his work to resettle refugees.

"It was saving the lives of refugees," Ray told the AP. "People would say that you might not get re-elected and I would say I can make more money if I don't get re-elected."

"There's an excitement about being able to help other people, particularly in the governor's office," Ray added. "Money isn't the only reason you exist."

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