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A Man with an Impactful Reach

Thenh Bo Bong – Circa 1977 Courtesy of Centerville Greenhouses, Inc.

With the recent passing of Iowa’s uber-popular Governor Robert D. Ray, I am reminded of his influence on our family four decades ago while growing up in Centerville. This impact was in the form of becoming educated about life outside of Iowa…and our country.

Growing up in a small Iowa town can have both positive and not-so-positive vibes…much of which relates to how we personally perceive whether we can have an impact on the community where we live, work and play. In 1972, after my parents purchased a greenhouse in southern Iowa, our family moved to Centerville from Fargo, ND. Some of my best memories come from those initial years of helping make the greenhouse a growing concern. It took a lot of hard work to transform a run-down, badly neglected facility into something we would be extremely proud of – and depend on for our livelihood.

Governor Ray, elected in 1968, was up for his first re-election the year we moved to Iowa. Given my age at the time, I knew very little about him, other than through newspapers articles or radio and television. I now have the luxury of knowing more about Gov. Ray and his policies, understanding that even though he was a fiscally-responsible Republican, he also embodied a progressive agenda that crossed party lines.

But he was more than that. Gov. Ray demonstrated a humanitarian response by accepting several thousand displaced refugees from Southeast Asia – a result from the horrible aftermath of the Vietnam war. The concern back then for some Iowans and Americans was that the refugees would take away ‘our’ jobs. Gov. Ray persisted, however, telling The Iowa City Press-Citizen in 2003, “I decided we couldn’t sit here in the middle of Iowa, in the land of plenty, and let them die…They had to risk everything, their homes and members of their family.”

New Arrival in Centerville

Around 1976, Gov. Ray’s compassionate action spilled over to Centerville – and to our family business. Through their own compassion, my parents felt it was their civic and moral obligation to reach out to a newly-arrived family from Laos, who spoke little-to-no English but desired to quickly assimilate into a new location and culture. As teenagers in rural Iowa, my siblings and I now had ringside seats to observe how refugees could reconstruct a new life of hopeful opportunity after having experienced tragic circumstances that occurred halfway around the globe. There are no social studies classes or textbooks that could be written to describe what we experienced working with this newly-hired employee – a tiny man in his forties with a wife and three children. His name was Thenh Bo Bong.

Thenh Bo Bong: Courtesy of the Centerville Iowegian 1980 Progress Edition

Although Thenh Bo spoke no English, his sons would act as his early interpreters. Over time, he would intently listen and watch his co-workers and quickly grasped the various jobs that needed to be performed at the greenhouse. I specifically remember that, despite the hot and humid summer months, he enjoyed having hot tea or water during our sanctioned morning and afternoon breaks. Though very quiet, primarily due to not speaking English, he always had an infectious smile and was very courteous to others – the language barrier could easily be replaced through other means. From this, I learned that effective communication can come in many forms, one of which, of course, is the spoken language. But the universal language, regardless of culture, is more easily demonstrated through our actions toward one another. Learning this invaluable lesson came from on-the-job training with our newest employee.

During the winter months, my sister, Mary, would pick up Thenh Bo (along with his two sons) at his home and deliver the sons to the junior high before taking Thenh Bo to the greenhouse. Mary herself, would then proceed to high school. Our parents sponsored Thenh Bo’s parents when relocating to Centerville, and also helped furnish their apartment with bedding, curtains and various other items. The tapestry of cultures, no matter how different, impacted many lives in this small town.

During his employment at the greenhouse, Thenh Bo and his wife had a newborn son, John, who was named after my older brother. When afforded the opportunity, it is amazing just how disparate cultures can intertwine with one another and, as a result, become more enriched. As I understand it, Thenh Bo’s children became well educated and, eventually, pursued their vocation in medicine.

The legacy that Gov. Ray leaves for us is both vast and immeasurable. If not for his efforts, we would never have met the Bong family to appreciate their culture and fully understand the realization that we truly do live in a world that is a better place because of acts of kindness (and boldness) that began through Gov. Ray.

I’m quite sure there are countless ‘Thenh Bo’ stories throughout Iowa and beyond. Each one of them unique. We’re thankful to Gov. Ray and Thenh Bo (and his family) for teaching us that it is through compassion and understanding that we can “sit here in the middle of Iowa, in the land of plenty”…and provide the less fortunate a chance to live and contribute.

Now THAT is an impactful reach!

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