Bob Ray ‘made Iowa a better place’
PERRY BEEMAN Jul 8, 2018 | 11:23 pm
4 min read time955 wordsAll Latest News, Culture, Law & Government
Visionary. Mentor. Smart businessman. Dedicated leader.
Community and business leaders across Iowa are noting the important roles former Gov. Bob Ray inhabited in his long career of service and leadership.
Robert D. Ray, known for opening Iowa to Southeast Asia refugees after the Vietnam War and for his strong love of Iowa, died Sunday at an area nursing home, according to a statement from his family. He was 89.
Robert Dolph Ray became Iowa’s 38th governor, serving from 1969 to 1983 — one of the longest tenures on record. Time Magazine named him one of the nation’s young leaders in 1974.
“A soldier, statesman, citizen and CEO, Bob Ray was a profile of an American patriot,” U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley said in a statement. “From my years in the Statehouse through my first term in the U.S. Senate, I witnessed Gov. Ray strengthen the grassroots of our party, make Iowa a better place to grow, and build our state’s economy. Barbara and I extend our heartfelt condolences to Billie and the entire Ray family. He will be greatly missed.”
Ray eventually became a Cedar Rapids insurance executive and later served as interim mayor of Des Moines. He was a legend in the Republican Party, former state chair of the party, a dignified gentleman with a calming voice, and a mentor to countless Iowans.
“I never had a job I didn’t like,” Ray told the Business Record’s Joe Gardyasz in 2003. “And I never had a job I planned to have. So I’ve had a very fortunate life. I’ve had opportunities that very few people have had, and it’s been exciting.”
Ray governed in the anti-government fallout from the Vietnam War. He shared a helicopter ride with Pope John Paul II, aiming his camera at the pontiff before the leader of the Catholic Church worldwide spoke before 350,000 people at Living History Farms in Urbandale in 1979. He corresponded with former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, who were among Ray’s political supporters, and those letters are part of an archive that was scheduled to be digitized for public consumption in a partnership with Drake University, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported.
“It was a wonderful opportunity to serve and to truly make a difference in people’s lives,” he told the Business Record in that 2003 interview. “I used to tell staff, ‘I’m going to listen to every argument, on every side of the issue. I’ll talk to anybody. I’ll take as much time as I need to make the decision. And once I make the decision, I can defend it, because I’ll know what the arguments are. And it may not be perfect, but it will be the best in my judgment. And if I make a mistake, I’ll correct it as quickly as possible.'”
Colleagues appreciated his thoughtful approach.
“Governor Ray was a one-of-a-kind leader and leaves behind a tremendous legacy,” Secretary of State Paul Pate said in a statement. “Our state, our nation and our world were made better by his outstanding leadership. He was a model for all of us to follow and will be greatly missed.”
After his time as governor, Ray worked as president of Life Investors Inc., as a U.S. representative to the United Nations and as president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Iowa. His high-profile service in interim positions included serving as mayor of Des Moines and president of Drake University, his alma mater.
“Governor Ray had a tremendous impact on Iowa, the United States and the world,” said Drake President Marty Martin on Sunday. “His legacy will live on, of course, through the great work of the Robert D. and Billy Ray Center; the Robert D. Ray Collection of personal papers (circa 1987-1999), archived at Cowles Library; the Ray Society, Drake University’s lifelong learning organization; and the Ray Promenade, a beautiful plaza to be dedicated on campus this fall.”
Among Ray’s interests was lifelong learning. The Ray Society, named for the governor and his family, regularly offers classes at Drake University for adults on a wide range of issues. He also was involved in the creation of Character Counts, a program that encourages civility that grew out of Iowa’s sesquicentennial observance in 1996. “We were trying to find a legacy that would be beyond just a monument,” Ray told the Business Record. “We thought that people don’t grow up with much respect for one another, that they’re not particularly mannerly.”
Among his other interests: Ice cream. One company came out with a special flavor in his honor, Ray’s sweet tooth was so well known. And it was a meeting over ice cream at the Des Moines Club that allowed Ray to talk Des Moines’ Diana Deibler to take a job at Blue Cross Blue Shield rather than leave town for another professional opportunity.
One of Ray’s lasting legacies involves the generations of residents from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that have called Iowa home after he invited them to settle here. The Asian gardens on the east bank of the Des Moines River downtown are named in his honor. His reputation nationally led to his appointment as chairman of the National Governors Association and president of the Council of State Governments.
Until one of Ray’s proteges, Terry Branstad, broke his record, Ray was the longest-serving governor in Iowa history. Branstad became the longest-serving governor in the nation and is now U.S. ambassador to China.
Ray and his wife, Billie Ray, had three children. Ray had business and law degrees from Drake, where he later served as chairman of the Board of Trustees. He had suffered from Parkinson’s disease in recent years.
Read more about Ray’s legacy: “Governor: An Oral Biography of Robert D. Ray”
Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs archive