Among the many accomplishments of the former Republican Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, who died July 8 at age 89, was his support and participation in the International Friendship Force, a nonpartisan nonprofit started by a Democratic governor.
Gov. Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were on the first Friendship Force trip in 1973 when Carter was governor of Georgia. Two hundred Georgians exchanged places with 200 people from Pernambuco, Brazil, Georgia’s sister state.
When Carter became president, he set up the International Friendship Force with the Rev. Wayne Smith, a Presbyterian minister and Carter’s friend, as its first national director. Rosalynn Carter was the group’s chairwoman, and she is credited with putting the program on a sound financial footing and enlisting other governors and foreign heads of state in the venture. Staffers were based in Atlanta, but most of the work was done by volunteers.
Its original structure was a 10-day exchange of citizens between the United States and another country.
“Most people who go on these flights will be people who have never been outside the United States,” Smith said. “These are the people we want to go. We want people in lower economic groups to go.”
By way of example, Smith pointed to a chimney sweep in Great Britain who took his American visitor to sweep chimneys and a Costa Rican visitor who fertilized fields with his Idaho host.
The destination for Friendship Force trips was not announced in advance to discourage those looking for a cheap way to travel. The point of the trips was to promote friendship and understanding at a grass-roots level. Travelers stayed with families in their host country.
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“They do not go as tourists,” Smith said. “We tell them if they want to tour, they should take a tour.”
THE RAYS & IOWA
Iowa’s first lady Billie Ray started the first Iowa Friendship Force organization in 1977. On Nov. 7 of that year, President Carter’s mother, Lillian Carter, joined 254 Iowans headed to Ireland. She had dinner with Iowa Gov. Robert Ray and his wife before departing.
The trip was a relaxing and apparently unusual one for Iowa’s first lady.
“As Miss Lillian dominated the spotlight of the tour, Mrs. Ray was quietly enjoying the flowers in Dublin’s parks, exploring cobblestoned back streets and washing her hostess’ breakfast dishes,” according to a news story.
“This trip has simply reinforced my belief that all people have the same emotions, the same problems, and thrive in an atmosphere of togetherness,” Billie Ray said.
By July 1979, 30 exchanges had taken place, involving 16,430 people from 14 countries, 23 states and the District of Columbia.
The program finally reached a goal of a modified exchange with the Soviet Union in February 1982. A former Gazette reporter, George Mills, went with 56 Iowans and 44 travelers from other states. The travelers were not allowed to stay in Soviet homes and were closely monitored while they were in the country. The Soviets were not interested in letting their citizens make a return visit to the United States, though a few Soviet officials did travel to Cedar Rapids in 1987 under the auspices of the program.
In August 1982, a Friendship Force exchange with Newcastle, England, involved 14-year-old Amy Carter, the former first daughter and by then a page in the U.S. Senate.
After stepping down as Iowa governor in 1983, Robert and Billie Ray moved to Cedar Rapids, where Ray became president and CEO of Life Investors. They also devoted more time to Friendship Force.
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By 1985, they created a Cedar Rapids/Iowa City chapter and joined in exchanges to China in 1985 and Korea in 1986. Ray said Friendship Force ambassadors succeeded in diplomacy where organizations like the United Nations failed.
Peace, he said, “doesn’t happen because every representative is there to represent their country’s goals, which are selfish, which are goals out of fear ...
“The U.N.’s shortcomings are where Friendship Force succeeds,” he said. “It is not something specific that makes the organization work. It is feelings. Feelings are fact. You can’t define them and yet, we all have them. ...
“Friendship goes where it is invited and stays where it is treated well.”
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