Essay

Robert D. Ray, 1928-2018

By July 13, 2018 6 Comments

It may well have been one of the best marketing ploys I’d ever come up with–get former Iowa Governor Robert Ray to come out west to Sioux City for a book rollout, a collection of stories about Tai Dam people, the people whose cause he’d championed in the early 70s. 

Back then, the Tai Dam had made it known they wanted to come to America en masse, not as individuals. They wanted to stay together as strangers in a strange land, and they were serious about it. If they were going to leave Laos–and they had to–they wanted badly to stay a people.

Somehow, the Tai Dam contacted the State Department. Their lives were in jeopardy because their homeland had been overtaken by those they’d opposed during the long war in Southeast Asia. A State Department official wrote every governor in the country with their very pointed request. Only one said yes: Robert Ray, Governor of Iowa, who told the Tai Dam people that Iowans would take them, all of them, just as they wanted.

His offer was by not overwhelmingly popular. More Iowans than not boldly declared they didn’t want the Tai Dam or any other refugee people for that matter. Many opposed Governor Ray and his largesse, and did so publicly. 

But for one simple reason, the governor went forward with open arms; he was convinced, body and soul, that taking in the Tai Dam was the right thing to do, the moral thing to do. We simply could not turn our backs on a people who’d helped us. America could not say no, so he made it clear that Iowa would say yes.

The book we wanted to sell was Crossing Over: Stories of Asian Refugee Christians, something I’d written with help from the members of that Tai Dam community and a grant from The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and the Lily Endowment, Inc. That was thirteen years ago.

It was my idea to get former Iowa’s retired Governor Robert D. Ray to come from Des Moines for a book opening at Siouxland Unity Church, downtown Sioux City. Like no one else on the face of the earth, Robert Ray, a Republican, had worked to bring the Tai Dam to Iowa. Hundreds–no, thousands–of Iowans had opened their hearts and their homes to refugees, sponsored them, supported them, kept them in socks and underwear, helped them learn English, found jobs, became their cultural guides through a new world so much unlike anything they’d ever experienced or could have imagined.

Robert Ray had made it possible, and they knew it. They loved him. There the book lay, front and center, but that night, to be sure, Governor Ray was the real story. So much love and admiration filled the sanctuary that it was a blessing simply to breathe in that room. 

Ray talked about a visit he and his wife had made in the early 70s to a Southeast Asian refugee camp where conditions were anything but exemplary. The two of them went into a tent and discovered, to their surprise, a wall-sized Iowa Department of Transportation map pinned to a wall and adorned with red and blue pins to indicate where Tai Dam families and individuals had already been greeted and helped by Iowans.

At first, 600 were in need. That number increased to 6000. Robert Ray never flinched.

At a birthday party for him not long ago, a woman named Som Baccam told the former governor that she’d been 11 years old when she came to this country almost forty years ago. She told the crowd who had gathered that Governor Ray was a hero. “Forever he will be in the Tai Dam people’s heart,” she said. “He is our savior. We have a home now, so we do have a place to call home.”

Getting the Rays to come to Siouxland Unity Church that night may well have been the best marketing idea I’d ever created. But if the bottom line had only to do with tallying book sales, we flopped but good, sold but a few. What I’ve never forgotten, however, is the palpable presence of love all around the sanctuary: him for them, them for him.

Robert D. Ray, a five-term governor of the State of Iowa, is remembered for many wonderful accomplishments, none so generous, so charitable, so selfless as what he daringly offered to homeless refugees who wanted and needed nothing more than a safe home in a new land.

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Post script: Last Sunday the pastor in the church we attended told the congregation that she and her husband (they share the pulpit) had not before received so many comments on their sermons as they had since they’d begun a series on the Old Testament prophets earlier this summer–some people happy, she said, some not so. 

Everything I just said is true. Robert Ray died last Sunday. Any eulogy you read will praise him for his selfless regard for Southeast Asians some four decades ago. Maybe the story I just told sounds as if the writer is playing politics. But this week, it’s the story that should be told. Robert Ray, five-time Governor of Iowa, died this week, died a hero.

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

6 Comments

  • Emily Brink says:

    Loved this, Jim. Read just after reading the NY Times piece on Wed. about the stateless teen that helped save the rest of his teammates in the “impossible cave rescue” in Thailand that has riveted the world. Those were not all Thai people; the coach and 3 of the boys were stateless ethnic minorities, and one, Adul, can be credited with saving the others because he could speak English. I’m grateful it was a church who took him in; he lived in the church building after his parents sent him away from the dangers in Myanmur. And the first thing his parents asked him to do after the rescue was to offer thanks and gratitude to his rescuers. Another small step. Grateful now to that family, that church, and back here to all those in Iowa blessed by Governor Ray

  • Beth Jammal says:

    Thank you Mr Schaap, for writing a beautiful and encouraging story.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    As the risk of being simplistic, I’ll say it: generosity is simple. When the decision is made to welcome, doors open, hearts open, and life happens. Some object; some will always object, and only heaven knows why. But the human heart is capable of so much kindness. Gov. Ray taped that possibility and life happened.

  • Edward Schreur says:

    Thanks, Jim, for this article, which gives us a story to tell over and over when it comes to immigration and refugee issues.

  • Carol Westphal says:

    Thank you for this story of hope in such depressing days!

  • George E says:

    A good and compassionate governor who eschewed the national spotlight so that he could serve his state. I’d say he was politically heroic in the way he led the resettlement of Tai Dam.

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