Bob Ray had an instinct for doing the right thing when he was governor from 1969 through 1982.

Early in his career when two National Guard jets crashed into Iowa farmhouses and the federal government dragged its feet on reimbursing the families, Ray grounded all Guard aircraft and vehicles until a settlement was reached. 

In 1970, when promoters wanted to hold a music festival in northeast Iowa after concerts in other states had turned violent, Ray traveled to Wadena, took the stage and politely asked the concertgoers to behave, which they did.

The best thing Ray did, though, was that he made Iowa a model for refugee resettlement. Matthew R. Walsh, a history professor at Des Moines Area Community College, tells the story in a new book, “The Good Governor: Robert Ray and the Indochinese Refugees of Iowa.”

It’s a story that older Iowans may recall, but Walsh provides details and perspective that most of us have either forgotten or never fully understood. 

If you were born after 1980, it’s probably a new story for you, but one that holds special meaning at a time when nations around the world are struggling to cope with displaced peoples and cultures. 

As Walsh notes, the resettlement model that benevolent nations worldwide look to today was developed in Iowa during the late 1970s. 

It began in the summer of 1975, when Ray was one of 30 U.S. governors to receive a letter from Arthur Crisfield, a former government employee in Laos. The letter pleaded for help in resettling a relatively small group of Indochinese people known as Tai Dam, or black Tai, which referred to the color of their clothing. 

“In this succinct yet powerful letter,” Walsh writes, “Crisfield described how communism had doggedly pursued the Tai Dam from the Tai Federation to Hanoi (1952), from Hanoi to Laos (1954), and from Laos to Thailand (1975),” where they languished in refugee camps.

Of the 30 governors, Ray was the only one to respond.

The Tai Dam were a complicated people, Crisfield said. They were educated and had initially aided the Communists, but turned against them when the Communists attempted to eradicate Tai Dam religious beliefs. 

Their beliefs were based on ancient stories that valued family ties and ancestral locations. It was important, Crisfield said, to resettle the Tai Dam as a group, and not spread them across the country, which was U.S. policy at the time. 

Ray agreed to keep the Tai Dam in close physical proximity and said the state would sponsor 600.

Iowa was the only state to sponsor Indochinese refugees. The thousands of others who came to the U.S. in the mid-1970s were sponsored by nonprofits, including another 600 Tai Dam who were placed with Iowa nonprofits.

Iowa’s state-sponsored refugees were handled differently in one key way. 

Ray wanted the refugees to quickly become productive citizens. He did not want them relying on government welfare payments, as was the usual pattern.

So he placed Iowa’s resettlement effort under Colleen Shearer, head of the state employment agency. 

Ray’s other key lieutenant was Ken Quinn, an Iowa native who was a loaned executive from the State Department. Quinn is now president of the World Food Prize Foundation, but during the early 1970s he had been a Foreign Service officer in Indochina. 

A lot of cultural misunderstandings accompanied the resettlements, which Walsh explains in detail through the eyes of everyday Iowans and the actual refugees. 

Ray took a lot of heat for accepting the Tai Dam and later the “boat people” who fled Vietnam in 1979.

But in the end the effort became a tremendous legacy for Ray and all of Iowa.