How 5 ‘mistakes’ by Iowan Ken Quinn ultimately made the World Food Prize world-class

By DANIEL P. FINNEY | Copyright The Des Moines Register

Oct. 14, 2019

Ken Quinn thought he blew it. In 1999, he retired from a distinguished career in the U.S. Foreign Service, including serving as ambassador to Cambodia. He moved from the Washington, D.C., suburbs back to Des Moines, where he had served as an aide to Gov. Bob Ray in the late 1970s, to become president of the World Food Prize.

The prize honors advances in the fight against global hunger. It was founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, an Iowa plant scientist whose work is credited with saving a billion lives.

Borlaug envisioned the World Food Prize as the Nobel Peace Prize for agriculture. But Quinn inherited a small office in the Ruan II building in downtown Des Moines with a single staff member to answer the phones.

“And the phones weren’t ringing,” Quinn recalled in an interview in advance of this year’s World Food Prize events, set for Oct. 16 to 18 in Des Moines.

This is Quinn’s 20th and final year as president. He plans to retire at the end of the year.

But two decades ago, Quinn wasn’t sure what he’d gotten himself into.

“When I took over, the job was about 35 to 48 hours a year,” Quinn said. “I thought I had made a terrible mistake.”

He hadn’t.

There’s a bug in Quinn’s thinking: Whenever he thinks he’s made the worst mistake of his life, he is wrong, and Iowa, the nation and the world are better for it.

The first time Quinn thought he’d wrecked his life was in 1960, when he graduated from Loras College. He wanted to attend law school like his TV hero Perry Mason.

But Quinn had only enough money, about $15, to take the law boards or the graduate school exam. Even if he passed, he couldn’t afford tuition.

The Foreign Service exam was free. So he drove to Madison, Wisconsin, and took the daylong test.

He figured he had no shot.

“They only took the best of the best,” Quinn said. “Nobody would have bet very much on a kid who graduated from a small Iowa college.”

Quinn passed and joined the Foreign Service. He dreamed of work in an embassy, maybe in London, Paris or Vienna.

But this was 1968. Quinn was 26 years old and healthy. He was going to Vietnam.

“Oh no,” Quinn recalled thinking. “What have I gotten into?”

Quinn spent a year learning Vietnamese. He landed in the Mekong Delta region as a rural development officer. He helped farmers develop better agriculture methods and move their crops to market.

Quinn picked up two lessons that would serve him well decades later as World Food Prize president.

The first was the power of roads.

When a road between four villages Quinn served was finished, he noticed an immediate change to the quality of life. The road supported trucks, which allowed farmers to get their crops to market.

Families wore better clothes. Children stayed in school instead of working the rice paddies. People bought sheet metal for the roofs of their houses instead of using thatch.

“The Vietcong who hid in these villages started to disappear,” Quinn said. “Young people saw the economic growth and didn’t see a need to fight a war.”

The second lesson took longer to blossom. Villages along the new road started using a product called IR8, known as “miracle rice.”

The cross-bred rice allowed farmers to get two or three crops a year instead of one. It brought prosperity to people who otherwise starved in poverty.

The miracle rice was developed in the Philippines using processes discovered by Norman Borlaug, the Cresco native who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

Borlaug had developed wheat to make it more weather- and disease-resistant. It’s believed his work saved a billion people from starvation in Central America, India and Pakistan.

The “miracle rice” in Quinn’s district was a direct descendant of Borlaug’s work. And it was changing lives before Quinn’s eyes in Vietnam.

Quinn did not know it at the time, but he had already met Norman Borlaug.

Quinn still coveted an ambassadorship and a gilded embassy in Europe. He was due to rotate out of Vietnam.

Near the end of his first tour, he took a Time-Life photojournalist named Dick Swanson, a former Des Moines Register photographer, on a tour of the villages where he worked.

The pair were on a boat on the Mekong River. Quinn told Swanson he was eager for a new assignment. Swanson asked him why.

“He told me I was doing good in Vietnam,” Quinn recalled. “Maybe I got to Europe and ended up writing reports that nobody read, but I could make a real difference in Vietnam.”

Quinn wrote Washington the next day and told his superiors he wanted to stay.

In the months to come, Quinn felt that was a blunder. The state department put him in charge of one of the toughest districts in the country, which included an airport that had been partially overrun during the Tet Offensive.

He was the senior official. Both civilian and military personnel reported to him.

Quinn boarded a Huey helicopter with a South Vietnamese officer at dusk each night to monitor enemy encroachments.

With four other helicopters on their wing, including two gunships, they skimmed the treetops and looked for enemies.

The helicopter pilots needed approval from Quinn to fire on suspected enemies. Sometimes, Quinn said yes. Other times, he said no.

One night, a gunship commander spotted people in the fields. The commander suspected they were enemy fighters. He wanted to fire.

Quinn believed they were farmers harvesting rice. Quinn told the pilot of his helicopter to land. He would go talk to the people.

“If I was wrong, we would have been killed,” Quinn said. “But I knew these people.”

Quinn was right. They were farmers, not fighters.

“The thing I am most proud of during my time in Vietnam is that in my district, we did not have a single civilian casualty,” Quinn said.

The state department assigned Quinn to the Vietnam-Cambodian border as the U.S. involvement in Vietnam wound down.

There, he witnessed the horrific consequences of the brutal rule of dictator Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Pol Pot emptied Cambodian cities and forced people into work camps, torture and starvation. More than 2 million died.

Quinn was the first U.S. government official to document the atrocities.

He wrote a lengthy report to his superiors documenting the horrors for the first time, providing an eyewitness account that even the U.S. intelligence community and Western journalists had not uncovered.

“People were so emaciated, rail thin. They dropped where they were, unable to move. Children were all alone,” Quinn said.

Quinn remembered one boy covered in diarrhea and filth in a makeshift medical tent.

“The life drained out of him as I watched,” Quinn said.

After leaving Vietnam, Quinn returned to the U.S. to work at the State Department in Washington, D.C.

In 1974, communist forces overran Laos and 12,000 Tai Dam people fled to Thailand looking for asylum. Overwhelmed, Thailand sought help to resettle the displaced masses. Australia, Canada and France welcomed some of the refugees.

President Ford asked U.S. governors for help. Only one answered: Iowa’s Ray. The Tai Dam were a close-knit community and their resettlement success depended on keeping them together. About 1,500 came to Iowa.

Quinn accompanied a group and spoke at an event to thank Ray and Iowans for welcoming the refugees. After Quinn’s speech, Ray sidled up to Quinn and said, as Quinn recalls, “You would be a good guy to have around.”

Soon, Quinn took a sabbatical from the State Department to become an aide to Ray.

Again, Quinn thought he was making a mistake.

He loved Iowa and respected Ray, but his career was in the nation’s capital, not the state capital of Iowa. He wasn’t really sure what he would be doing for Ray. It turned out, he would play a central role in one of the greatest humanitarian efforts in the state’s history.

In 1979, Quinn joined Ray and several other U.S. governors on a visit to Indochina regions overrun by more than 30,000 Cambodian refugees. While the governors visited the camp, five people died.

Quinn recalled a girl so malnourished she heaved a bucket to a waterspout then collapsed, unable to turn the handle.

Ray took photos that later ran on the front page of the Register. Ray was so moved by the suffering he saw that he asked Quinn to come up with a way Iowa could help the refugees.

Quinn called Michael Gartner, then the editor of the Register. They met at the Des Moines Club.

“Ken had the germ of an idea, an outline, but he needed help getting the word out,” Gartner said in a recent interview. “I said we would cover it in the news columns, and the editorial page would back it.”

Quinn and Ray’s idea eventually became Iowa SHARES.

The governor asked Iowans to donate money to pay for supplies, food and doctors and nurses to help treat the suffering among Cambodian refugees. The Register editorial page ran a coupon every day during the Christmas shopping season.

Iowans donated nearly $1.7 million in today’s money to aid the region. On Christmas Eve 1979, a convoy of doctors, nurses, food and supplies rode into the refugee camps.

Quinn returned to the state department. President Bill Clinton finally gave Quinn his embassy job, appointing him U.S. ambassador to Cambodia in 1994.

Of course, there was no embassy. It was a house in a loosely guarded compound in the middle of a country with a volatile political climate.

As many as 20,000 soldiers of the Khmer Rouge still remained even though Pol Pot had been driven into hiding in the jungles. The nation was at civil war.

Quinn surely thought taking the post was a mistake on the day his family came under direct fire at their home. Rebels fired rockets at his house and riddled it with machine gun fire.

Only a small local police force was there to hold off the attack.

Quinn and his wife, Le Son, took their three children and threw them on the ground. Le Son covered them, and Quinn piled on.

“We prayed to God that the bullets would hit us before the children,” Quinn said.

The Quinns survived with only scrapes and bruises — but it was hardly the kind of embassy work Quinn had imagined when he took that Foreign Service exam in 1968.

Yet, as with every stop in his life, Quinn managed to do a lot of good. He ordered officials to rent every piece of road-building equipment they could find to start improving roads so farmers could get their crops to market and people could travel safely between villages.

Just like in Vietnam years before, the quality of life for the poorest in Cambodia began to improve.

The Khmer Rouge slowly faded.

Quinn was present when word reached Cambodian leaders that the last Khmer Rouge soldier surrendered in 1998. Mission accomplished, Quinn returned to Washington in 1999.

Sometime in 1999, Quinn came back to Des Moines to check on the house he bought while serving under Ray. He had rented the property ever since. He considered selling it.

Gartner, former U.S. Rep. Mike Blouin and Michael Reagen, a former Ray aide who was president of the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce at the time, all suggested Quinn could raise the profile of the World Food Prize.

While Quinn was in town, John Ruan Sr. invited Quinn to a meeting.

Ruan Sr. had rescued the prize from failure after General Foods, its original sponsor, was bought by Kraft. Kraft execs had no interest in the food prize.

Ruan Sr. donated $10 million to endow the award and put his longtime associate, Herman Kilpper, in charge of running the foundation. Kilpper wanted to retire. Ruan Sr. wondered if Quinn would be interested in the job. Quinn had worked 32 years at the state department and was eligible to retire.

Quinn was uncertain.

“It wasn’t very clear to me what the job was or what I could bring to it,” Quinn said.

Ruan Sr. invited his son, John Ruan III, to meet Quinn. Immediately, the younger Ruan knew they had the right man.

“It doesn’t take long to learn how to like Ken Quinn,” Ruan III said.

Quinn didn’t turn the job down, but he took another assignment at the state department. Ruan III didn’t want to lose Quinn. On a business trip to Washington, Ruan III arranged for a dinner meeting at the Palm restaurant in D.C.

Ruan III laid out the challenge: The World Food Prize could be the Nobel Prize for agriculture. It would be Quinn’s job to raise it to that level.

Quinn went home to Le Son and told her he was retiring, and that they were headed back to Iowa.

Quinn soon discovered the enormity of his task. The World Food Prize was a small event attended by 50 or 60 people. The ceremonies were originally held in the lobby of the Ruan tower in downtown Des Moines. It was a black-tie affair, but it was a single day.

Quinn took a trip with Borlaug to Oslo, Norway, to observe the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies. Borlaug had several times lobbied Nobel officials to create a prize for agriculture but failed due to the complexities of the prize rules and its endowment.

Quinn took in the pomp and circumstance and wondered how he could replicate it in Des Moines.

“Quinn is 50% intellectual and 50% P.T. Barnum,” Gartner said. “He knew how to sell something to people.”

Quinn used his connections in Washington to get the World Food Prize announced at the State Department. He moved the World Food Prize ceremony to the State Capitol to raise the spectacle and grandeur of the ceremony.

In 2006, the Des Moines Central Library moved from a dilapidated riverfront spot on Locust Street to a new building on Grand Avenue in the Western Gateway.

The old library drew little interest from buyers. The building faced demolition. Ruan III and Quinn toured it.

“Ken thought the building had good bones, but I wasn’t sure,” Ruan III said. “But Ken saw the potential.”

The original renovation estimate was $20 million, but it soon grew to $30 million.

Ruan III kicked in some. Former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, who went to Dowling Catholic High School and spent hours studying in the old library, fondly remembered the building. Quinn convinced him to send a $5 million earmark for the project.

“The thing about Ken is he really makes a connection with you,” Harkin said. “He cares. You want to help him do whatever he’s working on.”

Quinn convinced Gartner, then head of the Vision Iowa board, to give $5 million to the project, too.

It took 10 years of fundraising, but the old library became the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, replete with paintings, sculptures, tapestries and stained-glass windows commemorating the fight against hunger.

Quinn finally got his gilded embassy.

Now, Quinn is 77 as he enters his final World Food Prize week. He still loves the work, especially the intellectual conversation, promoting Bourlag’s legacy, writing and giving speeches, but fundraising and administration are burdensome, he said.

Ruan III hired a search firm. They’re winnowing candidates now.

As for Quinn, a man who often thought he was bumbling through life: He’s become one of the most decorated Iowans in history.

He received the Iowa Award, the state’s highest civilian honor. He remains the only civilian to receive the Army Air Medal for his heroism in Vietnam.

The State Department gave him its Award for Heroism and Valor for his service in Cambodia and combat in Vietnam. He is the only three-time recipient of a State Department award for dissent — thoughtfully disagreeing with his bosses’ orders.

Under his leadership, the World Food Prize has grown to an attendance of more than 1,500 people. The prestige of the World Food Prize is internationally recognized.

“People outside the country definitely know Des Moines and Iowa for the World Food Prize,” Harkin said. “He truly made it the Nobel Prize for agriculture.”

As Quinn’s distinguished career in public service comes to a close, he reflects that “every time I thought I had really made the worst possible decision, it turned out to be the best experience.”

Quinn has no special plans for retirement, but given his track record, here’s hoping he makes a few more “mistakes.”

Register Storyteller Daniel P. Finney grew up in Winterset and east Des Moines. He wrote his first story for the Register in 1993 at age 17. He has stacked paragraphs ever since. Reach him at 515-284-8144 or Follow him on Twitter at @newsmanone or Facebook at @danielpfinney.

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