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GALLAGHER: Storm Lakers talk immigration with Katie Couric
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GALLAGHER: Storm Lakers talk immigration with Katie Couric


STORM LAKE, Iowa | My dad, Don Gallagher, walked away from the Storm Lake Farmers Market on Thursday and bumped into Katie Couric. The former national news anchor, who now works for National Geographic, proceeded to interview the retired feed salesman.

Couric spent three days in Storm Lake this week to work on the story synonymous with the Buena Vista County seat: Immigration.

My dad, who turns 93 in November, told her he's been a resident of "The City Beautiful" for nearly three decades. A father of eight children and grandfather to 27, he said his family has enjoyed nothing but positive interactions with newcomers to Storm Lake who have populated the city's schools, churches and businesses.

Couric told him that not everyone shares that opinion.

The old salesman realizes as much. He also senses that without meatpacking -- and a labor force to keep the industry humming -- Storm Lake, like much of rural Iowa, would be shuttering schools and churches, watching hopelessly as the downtown sector crumbles.

My old boss, Storm Lake Times Editor Art Cullen, said much of the same to Couric over a two- to three-hour span on Thursday. Cullen recalled telling me on his first day at The Times in 1990 (the year the paper was founded) that telling the story of new immigrants would be the most important thing we'd do.

I wrote about Khamlo Khounlo, a Laotian immigrant who worked as a custodian at Storm Lake High School when The Times named him our "Man of the Year" in 1992. I recall distributing the newspaper with Khounlo's picture on the front page and hearing a fellow glance down at the paper and said, "Great. Now we have 'gooks' on the front page."

That was 25 years ago. I pray no-one in Storm Lake uses a racial slur like that today. I pray Storm Lakers continue to accept people into this diverse community, offering comfort to those fleeing oppression, starvation, violence, or simply seeking an opportunity that comes with doing a job on the kill floor I won't touch.

Cullen, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, reiterated the point to Couric, who is doing a National Geographic TV series: Newcomers by and large do jobs that "native" Northwest Iowans -- like Cullen -- won't. Thousands of Mexicans, Sudanese, Laotians, Vietnamese and more report to work processing hogs or turkeys in Storm Lake, working to feed us while feeding themselves and their families, learning English, buying homes, sending their children to high school, then college.

The story repeats in Denison, South Sioux City, Sioux City, Sioux Center and wherever cattle, pigs, hogs or poultry are processed en mass.

I met Kim Vo, a Sioux City West High senior, last May. She sat with her parents, Vietnamese both, describing their packing-plant work ethic in the Tyson Fresh Meats de-boning department and the constant sacrifices they made to see that their oldest daughter would make the grade at high school and beyond.

Vo earned the Kind World Foundation Distinguished Scholar award, an annual award of $10,000 she planned to use while studying at the University of Iowa.

Vo would like to be a pharmacist someday. Who knows? When I'm 92 years old, Kim Vo might be my pharmacist, the person upon which I'll rely to get my medicine right.

"My mother said she never thought I would get this scholarship," Vo told me last spring as she served to interpret for her mom. "It's all unbelievable to her. She is proud and amazed."

Those two words describe my feelings about Storm Lake residents. And, how I feel about the recent immigrants who do all they can to achieve the American Dream.


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