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My Memories of John Ruan III: A Tribute from Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn

John Ruan III

September 24, 2021

Recently, Iowa’s business community lost John Ruan III, a leader in building and shaping the Greater Des Moines (DSM) community. We asked Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn to share his thoughts and reflections on the leadership of John. His tribute is below.

A Tribute to John Ruan III

When the word of John Ruan III's passing reached us, my wife Le Son and I were stunned and then deeply saddened when we realized we would never again see the man who had given me one of the greatest opportunities of my professional life, who, with his wonderful wife Janis, had shown such friendship to our family and with whom we had so many remarkable experiences.

As I contemplated his loss, I began to sort through my memories of John and to recount his impact on the Greater Des Moines (DSM) community, the state of Iowa, our country's business community and, indeed, food security around the world.

One of my very first thoughts was about the poignancy that John had passed away on September 11, the 20th Anniversary of the tragic 9 / 11 attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Just a few weeks after that dastardly terrorist assault, I traveled with John to New York City where, as a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he took part in a dramatic demonstration of national solidarity with the badly shaken Wall Street business and financial communities.

I had understood that John was a major leader in the central Iowa business community through his membership on the board of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, but it was only standing with him on Broadway near Times Square, that I appreciated the significant role that he and the Ruan Companies played in our national economy.

That connection was made even more apparent when, a decade later, John Ruan III became the chairman of the board of the U.S. Chamber, an unprecedented honor for an Iowa business leader.

One month after that visit to Manhattan, John Ruan III was once again center stage, this time at the Greater Des Moines Civic Center, where before an overflow crowd celebrating the 15th Anniversary of the World Food Prize, he made a dramatic announcement. Now in his role as chairman of the Foundation, John laid out his vision for the transformation of the century-old Des Moines Public Library building to become a new home for the World Food Prize. There was a standing ovation as John concluded by saying that his father and he were committing $5 million from the Ruan family to launch the capital campaign for the project.

Ten years later, in October of 2011, as we celebrated the grand opening of the $30 million spectacular restoration of the newly named World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, I recall John III and Janis standing in the garden in front of the statue of John Ruan Sr. with the backdrop of the high-rise buildings in downtown (including the Ruan Building). This image seemed to capture the role that John III was now playing in continuing his family's leadership in preserving and enhancing the vibrancy of the city center and thereby turning DSM into one of the most impressive and attractive communities in middle America.

The Hall of Laureates restoration had, in my view, not only filled a dramatic role as a centerpiece of the Principal Riverwalk, but it also inspired an array of projects that have revitalized the entire riverfront. Indeed, in 2021, it would be difficult to find a project along the Des Moines River in downtown that does not have a generous contribution from the John Ruan Trust.

John and Janis Ruan's long-term leadership in urban beautification goes far beyond the riverfront, and includes: the flower-filled planters that adorned the medians along Fleur Drive, creating a beautiful entryway from the airport to downtown; the ever-changing floral displays that surrounded the Marriott Hotel and the Ruan Office Buildings, bringing a new visual display with each new season; and major development projects, such as the revitalization of the Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden.

The design of the garden at the Hall of Laureates was a special focus of both John and Janis, who engaged the acclaimed landscape architect Douglas Hoerr to create an "urban oasis" of beauty in the city center. This project provided the linchpin for the array of projects, outlined above, that Janis and John promulgated to beautify Des Moines.

As a surprise gift for their parents, John Ruan IV and Rachel Ruan McLean joined me in a gesture to name the formal garden at the Hall of Laureates in their honor. I recall the happy looks on all of their faces as the family joined together to unveil the new name — the "Janis & John Ruan III Garden." Standing there, it occurred to me what great parents John and Janis had been to have two such remarkable children who, now as adults, were finding their own places in our community.

John and Janis loved to travel. One of my favorite memories is of them holding wine glasses and offering a toast with the spectacular 1,000-year-old ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia in the background. It was the concluding night of an excursion that I helped John and Janis plan for a group of senior business leaders with whom they traveled each year to many of the most fascinating places on the planet. John’s love of history was on display (when he told me about an obscure 10th-century Khmer king I had never heard of), as was his passion for exquisite wine, such as the superb Oregon vintage he had imported to Cambodia just for this never-to-be-forgotten experience.

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There is an image in the Founder's Board Room at the Hall of Laureates that captures my favorite memory of John Ruan III. It is the centerpiece of a photo montage that highlights some of the most prominent world leaders who came to Des Moines to take part in the annual Borlaug Dialogue symposium and other events we hosted during the past two decades. Pictured are Kofi Annan, Chinese President Xi Jinping, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, PepsiCo Chairwoman Indra Nooyi and Bill Gates, who launched his multi-billion-dollar global campaign to eliminate poverty at the World Food Prize.

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The central image of the display (pictured above) shows John Ruan III and the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, presenting the World Food Prize Laureate Sculpture at a ceremony at the Iowa State Capitol in October of 2012. Reflecting his role in building the World Food Prize into the most significant international recognition in global food security, John was presenting our award to Daniel Hillel, an Israeli irrigation specialist, who had been nominated by three Muslim and Arab scientists. The audience, with people from more than 50 countries, was enthralled by this demonstration of how combatting hunger could bring people together across even the widest political, religious, ethnic and diplomatic differences. That night, Des Moines was truly the Hunger Fighting Capital of America and the World.

The Ruan family was endlessly kind to the Quinn family, always generously remembering us on holidays and our children's weddings. But John's friendship was never more apparent than when I suddenly developed an extremely serious eye problem that threatened to leave me blind. John dropped everything and started making phone calls. As a result, that same night I was being seen by one of the top retinal specialists in America. John Ruan III helped save my sight.

In looking back over the 50-plus years of my professional career, there were only a very few occasions when a brief conversation with an individual would have a profound impact and change the course of my life. John Ruan III was one of those persons. His convincing me to return home to Iowa in 1999 to assume leadership of the World Food Prize led to a 20-year partnership and friendship during which he and I endeavored to fulfill the dreams of Dr. Norman Borlaug and his father, John Ruan Sr., that "the Prize" could come to be seen as the "Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture."

I hope that having fulfilled those dreams is how my friend John Ruan III will always be remembered. I am only so sorry that I never had the chance to thank him in person one last time for that extraordinary opportunity he gave me.

Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn

Following 32 years as an American diplomat, including serving as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, in 2000 Ken Quinn became president of the World Food Prize Foundation. Over 20 years he endeavored to fulfill the vision of Dr. Norman Borlaug and John Ruan Sr. that it could become the "Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture."

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