Alumni Spotlight | Ambassador Kenneth Quinn ’60

After serving as the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, Quinn now shares his expertise as the Executive Director for the world food prize, The foremost international award recognizing individuals who have increased the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself.

A: After graduating from Wahlert in 1960, I attended Loras College, graduating with a degree in Political Science in 1964. Then, it was on to Milwaukee for an M.A. at Marquette, followed by three years at the University of Maryland working toward a Ph.D. in international relations. From 1967 to 1999, I had a 32-year career as a State Department diplomat – serving in Vietnam during the war, at the United Nations in Austria, at the US embassy in the Philippines and on Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council staff at the White House. From 1996 to 1999, I served as U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia.

Highlights along the way include:

  • Being the only civilian to receive the Army Air Medal for taking part in combat helicopter operations during my six years in the Vietnam War;
  • Having my ambassadorial residence in Cambodia hit by a rocket and ringed in automatic weapons fire while my wife and I covered our three children with our bodies (thankfully, no one was hurt);
  • Serving as the interpreter in Vietnamese for President Ford in the White House;
  • Negotiating access to prisons in Vietnam and Russia to search for POW/MIAs.

At my retirement ceremony, I was presented with the State Department award for Heroism and Valor for five life-saving rescues I carried out in Vietnam during the war, and for protecting American citizens from extreme danger during the civil war in Cambodia in the 1990s.

From 2000 to the present, as president of the World Food Prize, I have endeavored to build this $250,000 annual award, so it is considered the “Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture.” Founded by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug, the goal of our Foundation is to eradicate hunger in the world.

In 2014, I received the Iowa Medal, our state’s highest civilian honor, previously presented to only 22 persons in the last 70 years. Other recipients include President Herbert Hoover, Vice-President Henry Wallace and Professor George Washington Carver. I am so very proud to be a Wahlert grad on that list of distinguished Iowans.

Throughout my experience, nothing has been more important or meaningful than marrying my wife Le Son Nguyen, whom I met in Vietnam, having three children and watching them grow up.

A more detailed background:

My first job in 1964 after graduating from Loras was in the “hide house” of the Dubuque Packing Company laying the hides of cattle that had just been slaughtered. It was extremely dirty and difficult work.

Just three years later, in 1967, I entered the U.S. Foreign Service, with dreams of attending fancy diplomatic affairs in European ballrooms, but ended up instead working in villages in Vietnam during the war. The six years I spent there changed my life forever.

Even though I was a civilian, I found myself as head of a 10-man Army advisory team in the Mekong Delta, and became the only civilian ever to receive the Army Air Medal for commanding helicopter operations in combat. I was wounded by a North Vietnamese rocket and submitted the first ever report on the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

In 1974, I married my wife Le Son in Saigon and moved to Washington D.C. where I was assigned to Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council staff at the White House. In just 10 years, I had gone from the Hide House to the White House!

Over the next three years, I had some remarkable experiences. I was in the East Room to witness President Nixon’s resignation and Vice President Ford sworn in as president; I served as President Ford’s interpreter in Vietnamese as Saigon was falling; and then I flew to South Vietnam where I organized the secret evacuation of hundreds of endangered Vietnamese.

In 1978, I was the chief government witness in a trial that convicted two individuals of espionage against the United States.

Following that, I returned home to Iowa to do a four-year stint on Iowa Governor Bob Ray’s staff, working on refugee issues, especially rescuing the “boat people,” refugees from Vietnam. I was also the Executive Director of Iowa SHARES, that rushed food and medicine to starving Cambodian refugees along the Thai border.

In 1979, I was the public security coordinator for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Iowa, and was present at Living History Farms as 350,000 people gathered.

After subsequent diplomatic assignments in Vienna, Austria and the Philippines, as well as work on POW/MIA issues, I had the honor to become US Ambassador to Cambodia from 1996 to 1999. There, my residence was hit with a rocket and ringed in automatic weapons fire, while my wife and I covered our three children with our bodies, praying that the bullets would hit us and not them.

At my retirement, I received the State Department award for Valor and Heroism, for five lifesaving actions I took during my Foreign Service career.

Since retiring from the State Department in 1999, I have headed the World Food Prize in Des Moines, commonly known as the Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture. Our $250,000 annual award is presented in the Iowa State Capitol each October to laureates from around the world. I also headed the $36 million fundraising effort to transform the former Des Moines Public Library building into the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates [see for photos of the spectacular restoration].

Speakers I have welcomed at our symposium in Des Moines include Bill Gates, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chinese President Xi Jinping.  In 2013, we featured His Eminence Cardinal Peter Turksen, the head of the Pontifical Council of Peace and Justice at the Vatican, as a speaker at our conference. This in turn led to my wife and I having the opportunity to greet Pope Francis in 2015 during a trip to Rome.

In 2014, as Chairman of the Norman Borlaug Statue Committee, I led the effort to raise $500,000 to commission the creation of a statue of Dr. Borlaug which now stands in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.

Q: What led you on your career path?

A: The inspiration for my career as a diplomat came from President John F. Kennedy. I recalled him saying during an interview that if he had not gone into politics, he would have pursued a career in the Foreign Service. It seemed an impossible long-shot since only around 200 individuals were selected by the State Department each year out of about 15,000 who took the entry exam (most of them from places like Harvard, Princeton and Yale–and not Dubuque). Still, I gave it a try, and all that academic preparation at Wahlert and Loras College paid off. Passing the test changed my life forever!

Q: What has been most fascinating along the way?

A: The places I have gone and the people I have met. Throughout my career, I have lived in and traveled to numerous countries. Among the many world leaders and international figures I have met, the three most inspiring individuals that I have encountered during my career have been: Dr. Norman Borlaug, the founder of the World Food Prize; Governor Robert Ray of Iowa; and Corazon Aquino, the President of the Philippines. Each cared deeply about alleviating the plight of suffering people and each showed extraordinary courage in facing extremely difficult circumstances.

Q: What have you carried with you from your Wahlert Catholic High School experience?

A: I am so incredibly proud to be a Wahlert grad! My senior year at Wahlert was the most memorable, impactful experience of my entire education from first grade through my Ph.D. Feeling the pride and excitement of walking into that new building for the first time in August 1959 was thrilling. To have been chosen as the Cadet Colonel to lead the ROTC Battalion, being a member of Ed Colbert’s first basketball team, receiving the Bausch and Lomb Science Award as the top science student and serving as yearbook editor are all indelible memories of my senior year.

I have carried lessons from Wahlert with me throughout my career. Whenever I have encountered humanitarian crises around the globe, whether war victims in Vietnam, refugees from Indochina, Cambodian survivors of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime or malnourished, food insecure smallholders across Africa, the moral foundation inculcated in me at Wahlert and throughout my Catholic education always impelled me to do all that I could to alleviate human suffering.

To this day, I make reference in speeches to one of the most powerful examples of intellectual integrity that I have ever witnessed. It came during the last seconds of the first ever Wahlert-Senior basketball game on the Wahlert court in 1960. Even though we were ranked third in the state and seemingly destined to make it to the finals, we were trailing Senior by one basket. My close friend John “Fingers” Delaney ‘60 launched a desperate three-quarters length shot just as the final buzzer sounded.

Miraculously, the shot banked in, apparently tying the score and sending the Wahlert students into a frenzy. Then, the referees, uncertain whether Fingers had released the shot before the buzzer, turned to the official scorer, Wahlert physics teacher Bob O’Connell, for the final verdict. It was really close, but Prof. O’Connell never hesitated in declaring the shot no good. My heart still aches whenever I think back to that moment, but I know he made the correct call. He provided a lesson of a lifetime about honesty and integrity.

I regularly attend Wahlert state tournament games (along with my good friend Attorney General Tom Miller ‘62). I have seen the Golden Eagles win several state championships, but that 57-55 loss to Senior still hurts.

I remember wonderful teachers like Fr. Jim Chapman and Fr. Tom Carpenter, Bernie O’Connor and especially Sister Columba, who inspired me toward science.

The World Food Prize Foundation has a unique program to inspire high school students to education and careers in STEM subjects and confronting hunger around the globe. Our Iowa Youth Institute each spring provides the initial experience that can lead to international internships in Asia, Africa and Latin America. I invite Wahlert students to participate. Those interested can contact Kelsey Tyrrell at –Ken

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