"He was our ray of freedom:" Southeast Asian immigrant remembers Iowa Gov. Bob Ray

Nu Huynh gives her "beloved hero," former Governor Bob Ray a kiss on the cheek. (Courtesy: Nu Huynh)

She says Governor Bob Ray saved her life.

"There’s so many names for him: the savior, our hero. To the Tai Dam community, he's known as the 'godfather,'" said Nu Huynh at her kitchen table, hands folded atop a Des Moines Register newspaper dated November 23, 1983. A photo of her and her family adorns the cover.

The article inside explores her family's journey from Vietnam to the island of Bidong off the coast of Malaysia, a treacherous journey that took her, her three siblings, father and pregnant mother by boat for four or five days at sea.

"My father was involved in the military supporting the U.S. and the south so we pretty much feared our lives," Huynh said of why her family fled. They spent about three months on Bidong before moving to Iowa.

Now, Huynh, nearly 40 years after she arrived at what was then Des Moines Municipal Airport in April 1979, often gets asked the question: "How did you end up in Iowa?"

To which she answers: "Well there’s this governor, Robert Ray...”

Governor Robert Ray died Sunday at the age of 89. He served 14 years as governor of Iowa from 1969 to the early 1980s and is beloved by many, Huynh being one of them. He is celebrated for his leadership, especially for his action in the mid-1970s being the only governor in the United States to step up and welcome refugees from the Tai Dam community, who were forced from their homes during the war and had no where to go.

This set in motion the resettlement of thousands of refugees from all over Southeast Asia to Iowa.

Four-year-old Huynh was one of them.

“What makes him remarkable is he had the courage. He truly was our ray of freedom. Without his work, his leadership and everyone that followed his lead we would not be here. I would not be here," Huynh said, holding back tears.

She said she has been emotional since the news of the passing of her "beloved hero" Sunday, but vows to preserve his legacy and memory in her home, community and in her work at the Iowa Asian Alliance for years to come.

“We’ll continue to live his legacy, remember his legacy. Really we use the term living legacy because the foundation that he set, the landscape that he changed forever here in Iowa will just continue on and on."

Governor Kim Reynolds ordered flags in Iowa to be held at half-staff Thursday in honor of Ray. He will be lied in state at the Capitol from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday for the public to pay their respects.

His funeral service, also open to the public, will be held at First Christian Church, 2500 University Ave., Des Moines at 1 p.m. Friday.

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