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Robert Ray: "The Good Governor"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
February 1, 2023 3:02 am

Robert Ray: "The Good Governor"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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February 1, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, after the United States pulled out of Vietnam, their allies in Indochina were all alone. Faced with the prospect of slavery, torture, and death at the hands of the Communists they fought against, many asked to be resettled in the United States. Robert Ray, the governor of Iowa, stepped up. Matthew R. Walsh, author of The Good Governor: Robert Ray and the Indochinese Refugees of Iowa, tells the story of this remarkable man who was driven by faith and a commitment to helping his fellow man.

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They were on their own. The man to lead the charge to save them? The governor of Iowa, Robert Ray. Here's our own Monty Montgomery with the story of the good governor.

Take it away, Monty. In the state of Iowa, there's a unique ethnic group. In fact, there are more in Iowa than anywhere outside of Asia. They're called the Taidan. But how did they end up there?

Here's Matthew R. Walsh with the rest of the story. Taidan means black tie, and they're called black tie because of the clothing worn by their women. This ethnic minority was from northwest Vietnam. That's their ancestral homeland around the place called Dien Bien Phu. But they ended up in Laos after North Vietnam fell to the communists. But what happens is South Vietnam falls to communism, and these Taidan are very scared because they know that the communists remember them and how they fought against them in North Vietnam. Taidan worried Laos is going to be next. And in May of 1975, they actually crossed the border into Thailand seeking asylum.

And it is from Thailand that they write letters to 30 U.S. governors. They want to be resettled as a group. They want all these Taidan, they want their fellows to be able to go to the same place.

And nobody listened except for the governor of Iowa, Robert Ray. And he agrees to resettle these Taidan, but he couldn't do it immediately because the U.S. government was only accepting refugees from places that had fallen to communism. And the Taidan had fled in May of 75. Laos did not officially fall to communism until December of 1975. So the governor had to kind of bend the rules and say, well, can you let me bring these people in? And Kissinger and Ford agreed, and they basically just said, well, these people are originally from Vietnam, and that place has fallen to communism, and we'll bring them in.

And this Taidan group ultimately comes to Iowa in 1975. So Governor Ray brings in these Taidan, Vietnam falls to communism in 1975, but it takes a while for the communists to really gain a firm hold on the South. And thus began a second refugee crisis in Asia.

People were fearful that their sons were going to be drafted into this military and have to fight for the communists. So what do they do? They take to the seas. And it was incredibly dangerous for them. They got in these small boats.

Some of them are very rickety, unseaworthy. So pirate attacks, rape, murder, people dying of thirst, dying of disease. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the seas, and it's estimated that one in three actually died. And some people, right when they're about to get the landfall, there's this joy, but then a boat comes, and they actually tow the refugees back at sea, because these places like Singapore, they didn't want refugees. Malaysia doesn't want refugees. They're poor. They resent these people coming in, taking resources.

Some of them will actually be stoned to death when they arrive on shore. So Governor Wray watches a basketball game at Drake University, and then he returns from this game and watches a 60 Minutes program. It's a special report on the boat people done by Ed Bradley, and they're talking about all that these people have been through. Well, Wray was very moved, and he's like, we have to do something. He had already created this refugee resettlement program to help the tide on in 1975.

It's still running. So what he says is, I will agree to accept 1,500 extra refugees. And he then wrote letters to every governor to do more to help the boat people, and he wrote to President Carter to do more to help the boat people. He's one of the first politicians to stand up and say, we need to help these folks. So that's kind of the second thing that he did, was helping the boat people. It's the second of basically three big things that Wray did as governor of Iowa.

Bringing in the tide on was first helping these boat people refugees come in was second, and the third will be helping people from Cambodia. Well, Wray, he's born in 1928. He's from Des Moines.

He's a Des Moines guy. And he just misses out on World War II, but he does join the service. And while he's in the service, right after World War II, he's in the east, and he really gets to see the devastation. So I think that made an imprint on him as a young man.

It was something that was impressionable to him. He then goes to Drake University. And even before that, I guess I should say, at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, he was known for sticking up for the little guy. He wasn't interested in people bullying others. But he goes on to Drake, and then he studies law, and he becomes a lawyer, and then basically a chairman of the Republican Party, trying to get Republicans elected to office.

And then eventually he runs for governor, and he wins the governorship in 1968 and served for 14 straight years. For Wray, it kind of worked. He's a Christian man, so those Christian ethics, I think, are going to be important for Wray, helping out others. People complaining about refugee resettlement, they were saying, why are you helping out these foreigners? Why aren't you helping Iowans who you were elected to serve? And Wray's response was, quote, if we don't have the heart or the spirit to save human lives, then how can we be expected to help those whose lives are already assured? And if we're going to turn our backs on people who are dying overseas, our allies who are dying, well, we're not going to be all that kind to those who are in Iowa, so we can do both.

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That's 855-512-GOLD. And we return to our American stories and the story of Governor Robert Ray, the governor of Iowa for 14 years, and the refugees he brought into his state. When we last left off, Ray had decided, even in the face of criticism, to be the first governor to take in refugees from Vietnam. And he would soon take a flight overseas to take stock of the situation in the refugee camps.

Here again is Matthew R. Walsh to continue the story. Well, the catalyst for Ray's trip overseas is his work with the Thai Dom. He brings in the Thai Dom starting in 1975, but they still have family. They still have friends, still have loved ones who are coming in.

So he's visiting these camps where they're still Thai Dom, and there's a moving story. They said, Ray, Governor, we want to show you our symbol of hope. So Ray and the small delegation from Iowa, they go look at the symbol of hope in this thatched little hut.

It's the state of Iowa Department of Transportation map. That was their symbol of hope. And on this map, there are pins where different Thai Dom families had resettled and where these folks hope one day they would be reuniting with these loved ones. He's visiting the Thai Dom in Thailand at the refugee camp Nong Khai, and then he makes an excursion to the Cambodian refugee camp, and that's when, you know, he sees one person died, a young girl died and her head fell in the lap of one of Ray's aides.

Very avid photographer. And he went around the refugee camp and was snapping photo after photo of these kids crying, people sick, losing hope. They didn't have running water. They had hardly anything. And they were escaping a group of people called the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge.

This is basically meaning red people. They were nasty folks in Cambodia. They tore through that place. They were cutting open people. And these Khmer Rouge communists forced people out of the cities and into the countryside to work as slaves.

They separated families. One man slit so many people's throats that he developed arthritis in his forearm and had to develop a different technique for plunging his knife into people's throats to kill them. And many people starved to death. And Ray visited the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand in 1979, and he was just devastated by what he saw.

He wrote a great speech and delivered it to the assembly of his church. And this is him talking about visiting the Sakeo refugee camp. Have you ever stood in a small, muddy spot about two hours while five people died around you?

I did two days ago. Those deaths were only part of the more than 50 that died in that one camp on that one day. To see little kids with sunken eyes and protruding tummies trying to eke out a smile will bring a tear to the eyes of even the most callous. And when he returned, he came up with this idea of Iowa shares and he handed out that film that he had taken. Didn't even know what was on it. He gave it to the Des Moines Register, the major newspaper, and they published an article and it showed some of these photos and what Governor Ray had saw in the refugee camp and the newspaper helped publicize and get donations for Iowa shares. And shares stands for Iowa sends help to aid refugees and end starvation. And what I once did is they purchased a share in humanity, which was the price of a bushel of corn, and they donated money to the governor's office and the governor's office use this money to send medicine, Iowa doctors and nurses and food to these starving Cambodian refugees.

And one woman sent in her engagement ring to the governor's office and they had to give it back. They said, we can't accept this nine year old boy named Eric sharp donated his Christmas money as Ray basically announced this, you know, Iowa shares program. He said, in a world where there is hate, there is more reason to love and a world where there is hunger, there is more reason to share.

And in 1979, I went through this Iowa shares program raised over $540,000. Some people backed this movement because of Judeo Christian ethics, some in the Jewish community, you know, seeing those people starving to death in Cambodia sparked memories of the Holocaust, people being liberated from the camps and looking so terrible because of the mistreatment. So rabbis from synagogues, they helped out people in the Christian church, they served as a sponsors trying to help people get resettled and a lot of people felt guilty about Vietnam and destructive force America played there. Helping refugees was a way for them to heal from the wounds of the Vietnam War, and raise work with refugees also kind of gave people pride, because to be a public official in the early 70s. People were frowning upon you, it wasn't much to be proud of after the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal. So Ray helped keep people's faith in public government. And what I find amazing is during this controversial era raise approval rating was over 80%. It's quite fascinating, but a lot of people liked him and, and that's why they were willing to help.

The Thai Dom early on, did fairly well. Within a handful of years, they were able to have a vast majority of people own their own automobiles, and a majority of Thai Dom would become homeowners in just a short time period. What they did is they pulled their resources, they tried not to rent, they might be multiple families renting, but just for a little bit, everyone will pitch in and will get you your house.

And then after you have your house, you and others are going to pitch in, and then you're going to get me my house. So they bought a lot of homes, they might be modest homes, but they became homeowners, they became automobile owners, they, they helped each other out. So the community served as a safety net. Initially, the first group of people who came here, they, they were professionals, that was very helpful. The first wave, that first 130,000 people that I spoke about, a lot of them were officers in the military, politicians, people with good careers. Early on, a lot of them fell into becoming blue collar workers.

So there's stories of bank owners becoming janitors at banks. So it's tough for that first generation. Now the second generation did quite well. And you know, they're flourishing. There are people who are in the medical community, they're doing great work, but we do have a very diverse and rich state that, and a lot of it stems from this refugee resettlement that began in 1975. There's more tie-dawn in Iowa than anywhere outside of Asia. They created their own community center on the north side of Des Moines, and they named their community center the Robert D. Ray Welcome Center. You can go there for a festival every year. They have a big festival that celebrates their coming to Iowa. They honored Ray at that festival. There's also something called the Asian Gardens that we have here in Des Moines that honors Ray's work with these refugees. One woman, this is a quote from her, her name's Samba Com.

She said about Ray, I love the man forever. He will be our savior. He is almost like our Abraham Lincoln. He freed us. They really do revere the man. When he died, Governor Ray rested in state at the US Capitol building, and all these refugees came to say farewell, to lay their wreaths and ribbons and other things onto his burial site.

He's a very beloved figure, especially amongst the Southeast Asian refugee community. And terrific work on the production by Monty Montgomery. And a special thanks to Matthew R. Walsh, his book, The Good Governor.

Go to local bookstores or go wherever you buy your books online. Also, a special thanks to our own Jim Watkins for putting this story together. And what a story about what happened after the communists took over, and it was America and Iowa in particular who came to the rescue. What a story about Iowa's heart, about the American heart, and about love and compassion.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-02-01 04:35:10 / 2023-02-01 04:43:56 / 9

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