Bob Ray: A remarkable Iowan's life — from seventh-grade class president, to 'Governorray,' and beyond

Daniel P. Finney
The Des Moines Register

Bob Ray was the Iowan we all want to be.

For a generation, Ray embodied the ethos of his native state in a way few public servants can imagine.

Former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray in a 2013 photo.

He unified the extremes of the Republican Party in a way no one had before or since, bargained compromise with legislatures both friendly and otherwise; he possessed a keen sense for placing the right person in the right job for the benefit of the public, admirers say.

He continued in public service well after he left the governor’s office and remained one of the most beloved leaders in Iowa history.

And it all began in a humble frame house near Drake University in Des Moines.


The year 1928 was a good one for Iowa leaders.

A Republican from West Branch named Herbert Hoover won relatively easy election to the White House — the only Iowa native to become president of the United States.

Hoover’s presidency was a single term, marred by the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing economic stress known as the Great Depression.

But five weeks before Hoover was elected, another great Iowa leader made his debut.

Robert Dolph Ray was born in Des Moines on Sept. 26, 1928, to accountant Clark Ray and his wife, Mildred. He was the Rays’ second child and only son. The family was of modest means and lived in a frame house on 26th Street near the Drake University campus.

BOB RAY, 1928-2018:


From 1983: While serving 14 years as Iowa's governor, Robert Ray was an admitted ice cream addict. Shown here, one of his first items of business as a private citizen again was to eat an ice cream cone at Goodrich Dairy Store in Des Moines.

The future five-term governor of Iowa spent his childhood playing pickup baseball games at Drake Park. He played basketball and tennis while attending Grant, Callanan and Roosevelt schools.

Ray developed a lifelong obsession with ice cream at Reed’s Ice Cream on Forest Avenue, where he often stood in line for nickel ice cream bars several times a day. In high school, he worked part-time at Mrs. Smith Butcher Shop on Cottage Grove.

Ray was not a standout student, his mother and former teachers would say. He was bright and had an unusual ability to remember anything he saw or heard, but seldom studied hard.

“I know in high school, the teachers would talk to me and they’d say, ‘If he’d just open his book and work hard, he’d be an A-plus student,’” Mildred Ray told journalist John Bowermaster for the 1986 book “Governor: An Oral Biography of Robert D. Ray.”

Classmates remembered Ray largely as a loner. He was friendly, they told Bowermaster, but introverted and quiet. Yet his political chops first appeared in seventh grade at Callanan Junior High School.

An early win

Classmate George Lilly, who later owned a Volkswagen dealership in the metro, nominated Ray for seventh-grade class president. Ray made banners and posters and gave speeches. He won the office and the admiration of another Callanan student, a young Marvin Pomerantz.

Pomerantz would grow up to become one of the most successful real estate developers and businessmen in Des Moines. A Republican, he served in Ray's inner circle of advisers throughout the governor's career and was a top fundraiser for Republicans and Ray.

“Even in seventh grade, I remember being amazed by his political skills,” Pomerantz, who died in 2007, told Bowermaster.

Ray’s father and maternal grandfather were staunch Republicans. The two often groused about President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal.

A young Ray listened to the discussions and asked questions of his elders, but Ray was seldom impressed by their answers. He was a Republican at the time because that’s how he was raised, but he could have easily swayed Democrat or independent.

The love of his life

From 1982: Billie Ray and her husband, Iowa Gov. Robert Ray.

Ray made another important connection while in high school. The Rays attended University Christian Church, now known as First Christian Church, at 25th Street and University Avenue. So did the Hornberger family.

Ray took an interest in their daughter, Billie Lee, during a summer church camp, where the two met and began courting. She was named queen of the camp and Ray was named king.

Ray graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1946 at age 17. With the permission of his parents, he joined the U.S. Army and spent two years in Japan as part of the first wave of relief troops after World War II.

Ray enjoyed his service to his country, but was awestruck and saddened by the destruction that World War II had brought to Japan. He struggled with seasickness on the long boat trip to Japan, and, while there, homesickness for Iowa. But his experiences there began a lifelong fascination with Japan and Southeast Asia that would later influence the creation of the Iowa Sister States program and other humanitarian efforts.

He returned to Des Moines and enrolled at Drake with the help of the GI Bill. He started a restaurant with his future brother-in-law in downtown Des Moines. Neither really knew what they were doing and sold it before it drove them into debt.

Ray worked as a meat cutter at a Cottage Grove butcher shop to help pay for school. He studied business administration and teaching but did not student teach. He considered becoming a coach. He also worked as a reading clerk in the Iowa Senate, which gave him his first exposure to state politics and how bills are made into laws.

Again, Ray proved popular among classmates. He pledged the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and was elected student body president at the same time that famed running back Johnny Bright was blazing up and down the turf at Drake Stadium.

Ray worked as a newspaper carrier for The Des Moines Register and rose to district circulation manager while attending Drake Law School. He was offered a job in the Register’s circulation department but turned it down to begin practicing law.

Ray continued to date Billie Lee Hornberger, and the couple married in 1951 while he was still a law student.

After he finished law school, the Rays joined another couple and spent four and a half months touring Europe.

While on the trip, Ray developed what became his lifelong interest in photography, which 28 years later would provide Ray and Iowans powerful insights into the suffering of Southeast Asian refugees.


The Rays returned from Europe nearly broke. Billie Ray went back to teaching school.
Bob Ray shopped around for a job practicing law at firms in Des Moines and elsewhere.

He eventually landed in the offices of Verne and James Lawyer, two high-profile trial lawyers in downtown Des Moines.

Verne Lawyer, who hired Ray, was a colorful character in Des Moines, with wide-ranging connections. He owned a private plane and jetted around the country. Lawyer once arranged for his friend, famed trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey, to marry an airline stewardess at a club on Fleur Drive. Bob and Billie Ray were witnesses.

From 1958: Des Moines attorney Robert Ray, who was servicing as chairman of the Polk County March of Dimes.

Lawyer immediately saw Ray had political potential and would prove a powerful early ally.

Ray defended criminal cases. He once won a sodomy case, which led to him defending more sodomy suspects.

“Once you get a reputation for winning a case like that, they keep coming back to you, even if you don’t want them to,” Ray told Bowermaster.

Though Ray was a talented and fast-learning lawyer, the lure of politics soon enveloped him. He ran for Polk County attorney in 1956 at age 27. Polk County, then as now, leaned heavily Democratic, and Republicans were little more than sacrificial lambs in the county attorney’s race.

He lost by 10,000 votes. Still, he showed early flair. Billie Ray sewed costumes for several women she and Bob Ray had known at Drake or around town, and they wore the outfits in public appearances for Ray, including the Iowa State Fair parade that fall. They became known as the Ray Girls and would be a feature of Ray campaigns for the rest of his career.

Ray also eschewed the traditional red, white and blue color scheme favored by political candidates in favor of cardinal and gold, reminiscent of Iowa State University’s colors.

“It wasn’t that he particularly favored Iowa State, but he wanted something to be different and stand out,” said David Oman, a former Ray chief of staff. “They became his signature colors.”

Ray made his second run at public office in 1958, this time, aimed at the Iowa House. This bid, too, ended in defeat.

Again, Ray learned. He ran his first television ads, which most candidates at the time were not doing. In one spot, a union electrician explained why he favored Ray.

The Iowa Republican Party was disorganized in the 1958 campaign. To revitalize the party, Ray worked with Leo Oxberger, one of Ray’s law school classmates, whom Ray would appoint as a judge in the Iowa Court of Appeals in 1976. 

They joined social clubs and community charitable organizations: the March of Dimes, Rotary, Eagles, Moose Lodges. The idea was to spread the word about Republicans wherever possible.

From 1970: Mrs. William Jackson of Des Moines and her daughters Sandra, 8, left and Lisa, 6, man a campaign booth for Iowa Gov. Robert Ray at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

Ray said he was doing it to help build his law practice, but he also built a network of contacts that would become the backbone of his statewide campaigns for years to come. Through those clubs and early contacts, he cultivated dedicated local campaign leaders who supported him in each of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Defeated in his bids for elective office, Ray ascended the rungs of internal party leadership. He became head of the Polk County Republican Party in 1962. The following year, at age 35, Ray became the youngest man in 100 years to be elected state chairman of the Iowa Republicans.

The party struggled with its identity. Conservatives and moderates battled for control of the party both in Iowa and nationally.

The national GOP convention selected conservative Barry Goldwater to challenge President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 election. Johnson, riding on the nation’s sympathies after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy a year earlier and pursuing an aggressive domestic agenda, cruised to a landslide victory. Democrats widened their majorities in the U.S. Senate and House.

In Iowa, popular incumbent Gov. Harold Hughes, a Democrat, easily won re-election to his second two-year term, and Democrats took five of Iowa’s six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Democrats carried heavy majorities in both houses of the Iowa Legislature.

Ray had planned to go back to his law practice with the Lawyer brothers after the 1964 elections. But the trouncing was so bad, Ray believed he needed to stay on as party chairman.


From 1968: Robert Ray, Republican candidate for governor, at a campaign rally in Adel.

In 1965, Ray took on more executive responsibilities as state GOP chair. He hired more full-time staff. He held schools for candidates to educate them on the issues and drill them so they could defend their positions when questioned by the press, public or opponents.

Under Ray’s guidance, Republicans hosted $1 fundraisers called Buck Nights statewide. The cheap events brought in farmers, business people and everyday Iowans who rallied around a cheery new slogan: “It’s fun to be a Republican!”

Ray ordered tighter controls on how candidates could spend Republican Central Committee money and increased television advertising.

The results in 1966 were better-coordinated campaigns and huge gains for Republicans in the Legislature. The GOP won three of the state's then-six congressional seats from Democrats and seated 88 new Republicans in the Iowa Legislature.

Hughes again won re-election as governor that year. He also befriended Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the younger brother of President Kennedy and a former U.S. attorney general. The younger Kennedy convinced Hughes to run for U.S. Senate, clearing the way for a wide-open governor’s race in 1968.

Ray decided to run for office again, this time for governor.

Conservative opponents

Ray faced a three-man race for the Republican nomination, squaring off against Donald Johnson of West Branch, a former national commander of the American Legion, and newspaper publisher Robert Beck of Centerville. Johnson and Beck were more conservative than Ray.

Among other moderate stances, Ray opposed the death penalty. “No man has a right to play God,” Ray said in a campaign appearance.

Ray also favored limited abortion rights for women in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the mother’s health. He also opposed a proposal circulating in the Legislature that would have denied state welfare benefits to women with more than one child out of wedlock.

“Heaven help us when we don’t have enough compassion to help those who need us,” Ray said in October 1968.

Ray’s views would be considered liberal by GOP standards now, the late Arthur Neu, a former Republican lawmaker and lieutenant governor under Ray, said in a 2012 interview.

“He would be cut to pieces in a primary today,” Neu said.

Ray was supported by the Republican inner circle, but he was considered a city man and wasn’t well-known outside Polk County. Residents of smaller cities and rural communities viewed Des Moines, considered the big city, with skepticism.

In one campaign appearance, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House introduced Ray as “Bob Day.”

Boosted by plane crash

It took a nearly fatal plane crash to make Ray a statewide name.

On April 22, 1968, Ray was flying in a small plane with a pilot and campaign staffer when the plane went down near Clear Lake.

From 1968: Robert Ray and his wife, Billie, after voting in the 1968 Republican primary for Iowa governor. The cast on Ray's foot was the result of an airplane crash in 1967.

All aboard survived but were badly injured. Ray suffered a broken ankle and leg, which left him laid up in a Mason City hospital. But the campaign marched on.

Before he ran for governor, Billie Ray made her husband promise she would not have to make speeches on the campaign trail. She would be there with him, but she didn’t want to be out front.

With her husband injured, the campaign collected Billie Ray from Des Moines. She appeared before crowds and gave an update on her husband’s health. She never talked policy, but Iowans took a liking to the loyal wife and schoolteacher.

“Mrs. Ray was always fantastic with Iowans,” said Oman, the Ray adviser. “She was natural and real. People responded to her like she was one of them, just like they did with Governor Ray.”

When Ray returned to the campaign trail on crutches, his grit resonated with Iowans. He won the primary, then took on Democrat Paul Franzenburg, the state treasurer, in the general election.

From 1968: Iowa Gov. Robert Ray on the campaign trail before being elected to his first term as governor.

The tumultuous 1968 presidential campaign is remembered for the assassination of Robert Kennedy, violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago and the increasing unpopularity of the Vietnam War. It culminated with the landslide election of Republican Richard M. Nixon to the White House.

And in Iowa, 40-year-old Robert Ray became governor.


From 1969: Iowa Gov. Robert Ray waves to the crowd at Veterans Memorial Auditorium before delivering his inaugural address in January 1969.

The love affair between Iowans and Ray as their governor did not begin immediately. His first year was marked by a steep learning curve.

Hughes, who had been elected to the U.S. Senate in 1968, left office early to begin his transition to Washington, D.C. Lt. Gov. Robert Fulton, a Democrat, assumed the governor’s chair for 16 days to finish out Hughes’ term, but there was little focus on the transition to the new governor.

Ray came into an empty office without even a pad of paper, he said later, and was immediately confronted with the troubles of the day.

Under Hughes in the previous session, lawmakers raised taxes statewide. Farmers, in particular, were struggling with a new formula that taxed more of their land at a higher rate. Agriculture industries suffered, too. Hog prices plummeted.

Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature, which in theory could have translated into smooth working relationships between the governor and lawmakers.

In reality, Republicans in the Legislature were more conservative than Ray, and they often found themselves at odds.

Leaders in the Iowa House privately groused that the new governor didn’t understand the legislative process.

Ray stood his ground. He vetoed a bill that would have expanded the government’s powers to wiretap citizens. He supported the distribution of birth control pills in mental health institutions. And he fought off an effort to reinstate the state’s death penalty.

“They thought they were going to be able to tell me what to do,” Ray told Bowermaster, his biographer. “They were wrong.”

Calm amid strife

From 1969: Iowa Gov. Robert Ray addresses a large crowd of students from non-public schools throughout the state who converged on the Statehouse in May 1969 for a "listen-in." State officials and legislators talked

His first term also was marked by social strife. Students loudly and sometimes violently protested the Vietnam War, racial inequities and other issues on the state’s three university campuses.

Bombs exploded at Drake, a private college, and Iowa State University and the University of Iowa in 1970. There were no fatalities, but tensions ran high.

Students held sit-ins and confronted campus administrators. In one incident at the University of Iowa, several students used profanity in a protest with a university official present. Some lawmakers thought the campuses were out of control and wanted Ray to enforce strict discipline.

Ray refused.

“We’re living in a time when young people are restless and do things older people don’t like,” Ray told the Register in 1970. “But I’m not willing to condemn all for a few who do things out of the ordinary to seek attention.”

In other states, governors used the National Guard to quell student unrest. This proved deadly on the campus of Kent State in Ohio, where in May 1970 troops opened fire on a group of unarmed students, killing four and wounding nine others.

One night in 1970, a group of University of Iowa students decided to block Interstate Highway 80 by lying across the road. Ray had the National Guard, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Iowa State Patrol at his disposal.

Ray quietly sent in state troopers to escort the students off the interstate. The situation was defused without serious incident.

“That was a moment where Ray’s touch was just perfect,” said David Yepsen, a longtime Register political reporter who was then a UI student. “At the time, the Iowa State Patrol was second only to God in the respect of Iowans. Sending them in, instead of the Guard, really calmed things down. It was a classic Bob Ray moment.”

In the summer of 1970, a Chicago concert promotion company rented ground near Wadena in northeast Iowa. The plan was to host a Woodstock-style concert for as many as 30,000 people. Seven out of 10 people surveyed by the Register’s Iowa Poll thought the event should be stopped. A similar concert near Chicago ended in a riot.

Ray decided to visit the rock festival himself. He spoke to the crowd of about 25,000.

Iowa Gov. Bob Ray visited the Wadena rock festival in the summer of 1970 to encourage the young audience to have a good time -- but not such a good time that they didn't remember what happened.

“Look, I don’t want what happened in Chicago last night to happen here,” Ray told the crowd on a 100-degree late July day. “You’re here to have a good time, so please, have a good time, but we want you all to leave here knowing you had a good time. Try to stay off the stuff, OK?”

About a dozen people were arrested. There was no violence or riot.

“There was something very simple and honest about what Ray did there that resonated with even young people,” Yepsen said. “He wasn’t pretending to be one of them. He just wanted people to be peaceful. It worked.”


Ray survived a tough re-election challenge in the fall of 1970 from Robert Fulton, the former lieutenant governor, who had helped engineer Hughes’ successful U.S. Senate campaign.

Farmers still leaned against Ray because of their property tax burdens. Ray won by 34,000 votes, the narrowest victory in his career.

“Bob Ray had not become Bob Ray yet,” Yepsen said. “He wasn’t always viewed as saintly as he is today.”

In 1971, the national economy struggled through a recession. The state budget surplus was exhausted, and Iowans of all stripes begged for tax relief.

Ray’s approval rating dipped to an all-time low: 41 percent.

Ray dug in on tax policy. He pushed for a plan that shifted the state’s revenue stream from property taxes to income taxes. He worked with lawmakers to create an education funding plan that equalized per-pupil funding, putting schools in poorer regions of the state on more equal financial footing with those in better-off areas.

The school plan shifted much of the burden of paying for schools to the state. This eased local property taxes, which lessened the burden on farmers and improved funding for schools, which pleased many voters statewide.

“School funding was one of the most important pieces of legislation we worked on,” said Neu, the former lawmaker. “It set Iowa schools on the path to being the best in the nation. It’s a plan a lot of other states copied.”

‘For the little guy’

Ray seemingly sought to have a personal relationship with every Iowan with whom he had contact. He sent handwritten notes to every person who assisted him during his trips around the state, even if they only greeted him or hung up his coat. He also tried to read every letter that came to his office, and took pleasure in surprising constituents late in the evening by phoning them to respond to their questions or complaints.

"People often thought they received a crank call, hang up and Governor Ray would have to call back," Oman said. 

But the moment that many believe cemented Ray in the hearts and minds of Iowans came in spring 1972.

On March 5, 1968, a Wisconsin Air Guard plane had crashed into the home of Emma McCarville of Cresco. Her home was destroyed. On Dec. 9 of that same year, an Iowa Air National Guard plane wrecked the farm home of Peter and Marie Tjernagel, near Story City.

Peter Tjernagel died 52 days after the crash, which Marie Tjernagel believed was related to the financial stress brought onto the family.

Then for years, the Iowa attorney general and the U.S. Air Force wrangled over who should pay the families for their losses. The Air Force wanted Iowa to pay; Iowa officials believed it was the federal government’s responsibility.

Des Moines Register reporter Nick Lamberto wrote about the families’ struggles, which came as news to Ray. When President Nixon visited Rathbun Lake for its dedication in early 1972, Ray asked him about the problem. Nixon referred it to a subordinate.

Ray wrote a letter to the Nixon aide and also had it published in the Register. A school class in Story City gathered a 15,000-signature petition urging the federal government to settle.

In April 1972, Ray, as commander in chief of the Iowa Air National Guard, took dramatic action. He grounded all Air Guard planes until the two families were made whole.

The federal government was furious, but eventually paid the families.

“That was the moment people began to see Bob Ray as somebody who stood up for the little guy,” Yepsen said. “He took on the whole federal government for two Iowans. That was when they knew how tough he was.”

Challenge from right

When Ray decided to seek a third term in 1972, he faced a Republican challenger: Lt. Gov. Roger Jepsen.

Before a 1988 amendment to the Iowa Constitution, the governor and lieutenant governor were elected separately rather than as a single ticket.

Jepsen, who represented the Iowa GOP’s conservative wing, believed it was his time to run the state’s highest office. Many in the Republican legislative caucus supported Jepsen, who had been a legislative colleague in the Iowa Senate before winning the lieutenant governor’s office in 1968.

Ray girded for the challenge by building what supporters called the most impressive campaign effort of his career.

He again used the political machinery he built in the early 1960s, tapping GOP county chairmen and all those friends he had made rebuilding the party, to build a substantial lead in money and support. Ultimately, Jepsen dropped out of the race before the primary.

Meanwhile, Ray continued to be an innovative campaigner. He introduced telephone solicitations and computerized mass mailings. That fall, Ray ran against Franzenburg again, cruising to victory with 58.6 percent of the vote.


The old saw about Ray goes that by the time he left office in 1983, he had served as governor so long that a generation of schoolchildren thought Governor Ray was one word. Children would ask their teachers who the “Governorray” was of neighboring states.

Though possibly apocryphal, the story is emblematic of Ray’s widespread popularity in Iowa. By the middle 1970s, he polled at a career-high 82 percent approval. Even farmers, who previously believed the governor didn’t understand the relationship of agriculture to the state’s finances, polled 61 percent in favor of Ray.

Ray led trade missions to Asia, including promoting Iowa beef in Japan, and he was among the first U.S. governors to visit China after Nixon's historic visit in 1972. Those missions helped farmers, but it also brought the likable Ray and his staff close to the Iowans over the long trips, Oman said.

"You can't overestimate his likability," Oman said. "You have to like a person to vote for him and he got to know so many Iowans on a first-name basis through these trips."

Jepsen, the combative lieutenant governor, left politics for a time and returned to the insurance business. Neu, the newly elected lieutenant governor, had a more collegial relationship with Ray and the Legislature.

The state and national economy improved in Ray’s third term, and Ray and the Legislature began restructuring state government. Together, they created the Iowa Department of Transportation, which merged half-a-dozen separate departments under one umbrella.

The new agency issued driver’s licenses with photographs. The renewal date for vehicle registrations was matched with the vehicle owner’s birthday rather than having all licenses expire at the end of the year, which had created jams at renewal stations.

Ray signed a Democratic-backed bill to remove sales tax from groceries and prescription drugs, which cost the state about $29 million in revenue. He also signed into law a bill that gave public employees collective bargaining rights. 

The governor’s agenda drew criticism from Republicans Terry Branstad and Chuck Grassley, who were both state lawmakers at the time, before Branstad’s promotion to governor and Grassley’s to Congress.

But Ray was so popular, it was difficult for legislators in either party to oppose him.

“One of the reasons legislators felt more inclined to oppose him in 1969 and 1970, even in 1971 and ’72, was because his popularity was in the 50 to 60 percent range,” Grassley told Bowermaster. “By 1974, it was between 70 to 85. So it wasn’t bad for a legislator to be lined up with him.”

Nixon had resigned in disgrace after the Watergate scandal destroyed his administration, and Vice President Gerald Ford succeeded him. Ray became chairman of the National Governors Association in 1975.

Ford twice offered Ray the cabinet position of secretary of the interior, but Ray chose to stay home.

Meanwhile, a change in the Iowa Constitution had extended the governor’s term from two years to four. In 1974, Ray easily won re-election against James Schaben to secure the four-year term.


In the early 1970s, Ray was greeted outside his office in the Capitol by a woman wearing the traditional garb of the Yankton Sioux tribe.

One of Gov. Robert Ray's most celebrated initiatives was spearheading the arrival of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees in Iowa.

The woman’s name was Maria Pearson, also known as Running Moccasins. She had come to Ray to protest the treatment of Native American graves uncovered during a road construction project in Glenwood. Twenty-six graves had been unearthed during the project. Most were reburied, but the remains of a mother and child were sent to a state lab for study.

Ray asked what he could do to help.

“You can give me back my people’s bones and you can quit digging them up,” Pearson recalled in her 2000 book, “Give Me Back My People’s Bones: Repatriation and Reburial of American Indian Skeletal Remains in Iowa.”

Ray saw to the return of the remains, and he worked with the Legislature to ensure more care was taken with Native American burial grounds.

The result was the Iowa Burials Protection Act of 1976, long before the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

As another term unfolded, Ray’s humanitarianism stretched well beyond the borders of Iowa.

The U.S. failures in Vietnam left deep scars on the American psyche. The nation that had helped defeat Hitler and the Axis in World War II and kept advancing communist forces at bay in Korea had failed in its mission in Southeast Asia.

In 1975, not long after Ray’s fourth inauguration, 130,000 South Vietnamese refugees fled the country after Saigon fell. Laos, on the border of Vietnam, fell to communist troops later that year.

In July, Ford appealed to the nation’s governors to help resettle Southeast Asians. He offered $500 to help with the costs for each refugee. Only one governor responded: Ray.

“I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, ‘Let those people die,’” Ray told Iowa Public Television for a documentary on refugee resettlement in Iowa.

Ray formed the Governor’s Task Force for Indochinese Development. The governor’s office received a specific appeal from the Tai Dam, an ethnic group from Vietnam.

The Tai Dam were a closely knit group of about 3,500 people. They hoped to keep their community and culture intact, and wanted to resettle in one place together.

The U.S. State Department resisted settling a large group in one location. Ray pressured federal officials, including Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, to change their minds. They relented. The Tai Dam refugees started arriving in Iowa in October.

Opening state’s door again

Accompanying the refugees was a State Department official named Ken Quinn, a native of the Bronx, N.Y., who had grown up in Dubuque.

While Quinn was assigned to the Vietnam-Cambodia border, he had been the first State Department official to report on the massacres of the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot.

Quinn, better than most, knew the terrible conditions faced by refugees. He came to Iowa to give a speech thanking the state for accepting the Tai Dam people.

“After I spoke, I sat down next to Governor Ray, and he tapped me on the leg and said, ‘You would be a good person to have around,’” Quinn said.

Just more than a year later, Quinn returned to Iowa on special assignment to assist Ray’s administration with resettlement efforts.

In 1979, Ray watched a “60 Minutes” report about the plight of other Southeast Asian refugees from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. They were called “boat people” because they fled persecution on boats made of oil drums. Many drowned. Others starved to death or died of disease in refugee camps.

Ray ordered Quinn to use his contacts to see if the governor could again open Iowa’s borders, this time to 1,500 refugees. Quinn worked the system.

The move was controversial. A September 1979 Register Iowa Poll showed 51 percent opposed resettling more refugees. Ray’s office was flooded with mail.

“It was split right down the middle,” Quinn said. “About half supported it, and half opposed.”

The letters that irked Ray most came from those who said refugees would take jobs away from needy Iowans. Ray replied to some of those letters with phone calls in the late evening.

“Ray had an aide count up all the help-wanted ads in an edition of the Sunday Register,” Quinn said. “He would call these people at 9:30 or 10 o’clock at night and say, ‘Just go get one of those jobs before they arrive, and everything will be fine.’”

Photos of suffering

In October 1979, Ray and the governors of Michigan and New Jersey took a trip to visit refugee camps in Thailand. Quinn accompanied the group.

The delegation witnessed suffering, starvation and death, and Ray took photos along the way. The conditions left him and the others badly shaken.

At one point, Tai Dam refugees took Ray into a hut. On the wall was a map of Iowa filled with pins where Tai Dam people had resettled in the state. Ray, Quinn recalled, choked back tears.

Ray and Quinn returned to Iowa and were met at the Des Moines airport by Yepsen, the Register political reporter.

Yepsen wanted the scoop on what the conditions were like in the refugee camps.

“I saw people die,” Ray told Yepsen, which became the headline of the next morning’s Register. Accompanying the article were Ray’s photos, which Yepsen had convinced the governor to let the Register develop and publish.

“There was no politics in his feelings about that issue,” Yepsen said. “He truly believed it was the right thing to do to help them, and he went about convincing the people of Iowa it was right, too.”

He met opposition. Some in the governing body of the Disciples of Christ Church, of which Ray was a member, believed they should not get involved with the politically sensitive issue.

Ray traveled to St. Louis to speak to the church’s national convention. He delivered what Register religion reporter Bill Simbro described as more of a sermon than a political speech. Ray noted that Missouri’s motto is the “Show Me State.” Ray believed there was a moral imperative in the slogan.

“Don’t tell me of your concerns for human rights, show me,” Ray said. “Don’t tell me of your concerns for these people when you have a chance to save their lives, show me. Don’t tell me how Christian you are. Show me.”

The speech turned the tide at the convention, and the church supported aid to the refugees.

Back in Iowa, Ray teamed with the Register’s editorial pages for a statewide fundraising campaign that became known as Iowa SHARES. Donations poured in — more than $2.1 million in today’s money — to aid the refugees. The charity sent doctors, nurses, food and supplies to help.

“Governor Ray was a deeply moral man,” Quinn said. “He believed it was our moral duty to help those people. He could not just let them die.”

From 1972: Iowa Gov. Robert Ray signs legislation establishing Terrace Hill as a future governor's residence and repository for items from Iowa's past.


Democrats couldn’t move Ray out of the governor’s chair, but he did make a move in 1976 — to Terrace Hill.

Terrace Hill is a mansion built by millionaire businessman Benjamin Franklin Allen between 1866 and 1869 on land that overlooks downtown Des Moines. After Allen went broke, he sold the mansion to real estate magnate Frederick Hubbell, whose descendants gave the mansion to the state in 1971.

Billie Ray led a massive project starting in 1974 to remodel the mansion into a governor’s residence and a reception hall for visiting dignitaries.

In 1976, Bob and Billie Ray and their three daughters moved in, leaving a colonial house at 2900 Grand Ave., which had been the Iowa governor’s official residence since 1947.

His favorite legislation

The move to the gilded hallways of Terrace Hill was symbolic of Ray’s stature in Iowa. In the middle of his fourth term, he was a confident governor who commanded the executive branch with a calm demeanor admired even by his opponents.

Times were good in Iowa during the middle ’70s. Farm prices were strong, and unemployment was below 3 percent, half the national average.

In 1976, Ray’s approval rating stood at 82 percent, according to the Register’s Iowa Poll. Through the remainder of his governorship, it never dipped below 71 percent.

Ray was considered a vice presidential candidate in 1976, but Ford picked Bob Dole, a U.S. senator from Kansas who had more international experience. Ford lost the White House to Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter.

The stable times allowed Ray to pursue a pet project, one that he would later say was his favorite piece of legislation during his 14 years as governor.

Ray was distressed by the amount of litter along Iowa roads. He pushed for a nickel deposit on beverage cans and bottles sold in Iowa. His aides studied similar bills in Oregon and Vermont. They concluded the bill would not only reduce litter but also increase recycling and ease the burden on landfills.

The bottle bill, as it came to be known (although it covers cans as well), met opposition from unions, who believed the bill would cost jobs; aluminum manufacturers, who worried about rising costs; and grocers, who would be burdened by collecting and refunding the deposit.

Ray, however, refused to bow.

Special interests put out “unbelievable” propaganda, Ray told Bowermaster, his biographer.

Still, Ray had the upper hand. Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club joined with the Boy Scouts of America and the powerful Farm Bureau to support the bill. A Register Iowa Poll showed 71 percent of the public favored it.

It passed both houses, and more than 200 people attended the signing at the Capitol rotunda.

“It was a perfect, if not the perfect, Bob Ray legislation,” Bowermaster wrote. “It wasn’t very sexy, though energy conservation was a hot topic during the 1970s, but it had good, strong public support.”


From 1983: Iowa Gov. Robert Ray delivers his final State of the State address.

In 1978, Ray cruised to another easy victory, this time against a three-term legislator, Jerry Fitzgerald, 37, to earn a then-record fifth and ultimately final term.

His final four years in office would prove memorable. Ray received Pope John Paul II during his historic 1979 visit to Iowa at Living History Farms in front of nearly 300,000 people. Ray took a photograph from the helicopter he rode to the event, which was published in the Register the following morning.

He greeted Iowa native Kathryn Koob, one of the hostages held by Iran, who was released in early 1981.

Many believed Ray would use the term to position himself as a candidate for national office, either as a vice presidential nominee or a potential presidential candidate.

As the 1980 Iowa caucuses approached, political campaigns courted him heavily for an endorsement in the first-in-the-nation contest.

“Every day there was either a candidate or somebody from a campaign wanting time with the governor to discuss an endorsement,” said Oman, Ray’s chief of staff. “He listened to them all, and he considered some of them.”

Ray no longer had the perceived weakness in foreign affairs that led Ford to pass him over for Dole for the vice presidential nod in 1976.

Ray’s work with refugees had made him a national spokesman on the issue, and he had traveled extensively abroad to promote Iowa exports, including stops in China and the Soviet Union in the summer of 1979.

While Ray never openly ruled out a White House run, he also never said he wanted national office. And when the 1980 caucuses arrived, he remained neutral, refusing to endorse anyone before the voting.

After the caucuses, Ray endorsed U.S. Senate leader Howard Baker, a moderate Republican from Tennessee with a reputation for compromise so renowned that he was known as the “Great Conciliator.”

George H.W. Bush won the Republican Iowa caucuses and ultimately became the vice presidential running mate of future President Ronald Reagan.

“Some people believe Ray could have been Bush’s vice presidential nominee, but I think Bob Ray just liked being governor of Iowa,” said Yepsen, the political reporter. “He was comfortable in that job. He was good at it.”

Ronald Reagan flips pancakes for breakfast next to  Gov. Robert Ray at Robert Lounsberry's farm near Nevada, Ia., in September 1980.

Budget troubles

Ray convinced the Legislature to refund a $50 million surplus to taxpayers, giving back as much as $250 per person. The refund came at a precarious time for state finances. Revenues were leveling off and dropping.

Advisers suggested using the surplus for a one-time expenditure, such as a prison, but Ray was adamant. His fellow Republicans had rebuffed an idea to repeal the state sales tax on utilities, a move that was popular in other states.

Repealing the utility tax would have been similar to his support for repealing sales taxes on groceries and prescription drugs. Ray believed it was pure tax relief, but he found no support. So instead of letting the Legislature find a way to spend the surplus, Ray pushed for the refund.

That move would prove costly in 1980 when state revenues plummeted. The state’s cattle industry struggled. Interest rates and inflation climbed to as much as 20 percent. A recession loomed, and Ray found himself needing to cut spending in a hurry.

In 1980, Ray cut the budget three times for a total of $172 million, almost 10 percent of the state’s total budget. The recession continued through 1981. Ray resisted lawmakers’ pleas for income and sales tax increases, instead lurching forward with minimal budgets.

It “was a tough year,” Ray said. “Nobody could have predicted the recession would be as deep or as long-lasting as it was.”

Private sector beckons

On Feb. 18, 1982, Ray announced he would not seek a sixth term as governor. He would turn 54 later that year.

As governor, Ray earned $55,000 a year. Privately, he worried that his prime earning years might be behind him. Turning down federal posts had cost him a higher salary. He doubted he could return to trial law, having been away from the courtroom for nearly 20 years.

Lt. Gov. Terry Branstad won the 1982 governor’s race. Branstad, a former Iowa House member from Leland, was more conservative than Ray. At 36, he was the youngest man ever elected to the state’s highest office — four years younger than Ray when he had taken the oath the first time.

Though never as popular as Ray as measured by Iowa Polls, Branstad won four consecutive four-year terms, serving 16 years, two more than Ray. After a stint out of public life, Branstad was re-elected governor again in 2010 and 2014, becoming the longest-serving governor in U.S. history.

From 1996: Gov. Terry Branstad, left, visits with former governor Robert Ray at an even in Des Moines. Both were on hand to promote the state of Iowa's 150th birthday and Iowa's involvement with the Smithsonian's exhitbit in Washington, D.C.

Ray spent the summer of 1983 as part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, a position helped by a nod from then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

Three months after he left office, Ray joined the Cedar Rapids insurance firm Life Investors Inc., now known as AEGON. His salary was reported at $300,000, with bonuses and stock options. The couple kept their home in Des Moines but lived in Cedar Rapids.

“It was a conscious decision on his part to leave Des Moines for a while,” said Oman, Ray’s former chief of staff. “Governor Branstad was new, and it wouldn’t be fair for him to be hanging around looming. The Rays loved their time in Cedar Rapids.”

He served nearly seven years at Life Investors, then in 1989 took the helm at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa. There, Ray oversaw the mergers of IASD Health Service Corp. and Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Dakota, setting the stage for the company to become Wellmark, Iowa’s largest insurer.

Ray, no longer the politician, was a successful businessman. But he was not done being a public leader.


In April 1997, popular Des Moines Mayor A. Arthur Davis resigned when his five-year battle with colon cancer made him too weak to continue.

City officials set a November election to finish Davis’ term, but needed someone in the interim to officiate over everything from the relocation of Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway to tax assessment complaints.

They turned to Ray.

Ray, then 68, had recently retired as president and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa and appeared headed off to the sunset. He accepted on the condition he not be asked to run for the office on a permanent basis.

“When I was governor, I used to say there is no more difficult job than being mayor of a city,” Ray told the Register in 1997. “You can’t do much of anything without somebody disagreeing with you, and then you’re right there, looking one another in the eye. It’s day-in-and-day-out activity on the street level. So why would I want to do it? Because I might be able to do some good.”

Ray held the mayor’s chair until City Councilman Preston Daniels was elected to the job at the end of the year.

Also in 1997, as a legacy of the 1996 Iowa Sesquicentennial, which Ray chaired, he helped found the Institute for Character Development at Drake University (Character Counts In Iowa), which has blossomed into The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake. The Character Counts program has served over 500,000 Iowa school-age youth. The center also assists Iowans from preschoolers to corporate and community leaders as a state and global resource in the areas of leadership, ethics and civility.

From 1998: Drake University President Robert Ray is photographed near Old Main on the Drake campus, just blocks from where Ray grew up in the 1930s and 1940s.

Helping his alma mater

Then another voice from Ray’s past came calling: his alma mater, Drake University.

In 1998, Drake President Michael Ferrari, who had presided over the school’s financial and academic resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s, had resigned to take the top post at Texas Christian University.

Drake was in the middle of a $100 million fundraising campaign. It would take at least a year to find a new president.

School leaders turned to Ray, one of the school’s most prestigious alumni and a longtime member of Drake’s board of trustees.

Ray accepted, but with one condition: He did not want to be an interim president. He wanted the full title and responsibility.

“Governor Ray did not believe he could be as effective as he wanted to be if labeled an interim president,” said Don Adams, a longtime Drake vice president who served as Ray’s chief of staff during his yearlong presidency at Drake.

Ray became an active leader on campus and beyond. Some faculty members were skeptical about the selection of a trustee to run the school. Ray solved the problem by inviting the president of the faculty senate to join his Cabinet.

“Bob Ray wanted total transparency,” Adams said. “He didn’t want anyone to think he was there on somebody else’s agenda.”

Ray held the post until the hiring of David Maxwell, an experienced administrator who was head of the National Foreign Language Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Maxwell met privately with Ray as they prepared for the leadership change. Ray planned to return to the board of trustees, but he wanted to make sure Maxwell was comfortable with that.

Ray “didn’t want me to feel like he was going to be second-guessing me from the board,” Maxwell recalled. “I said to him, ‘The very fact that you would ask that question tells me we’re going to have a good relationship.’ He was always very generous in that way.”

Ray continued his service to Iowa through work on dozens of boards and commissions. A speaker and course program for lifelong learners age 50 and above at Drake, called the Ray Society, is named in his and Billie Ray’s honor.


Bob Ray was Iowa’s most popular politician of the 20th century. The late Washington Post political columnist David Broder once wrote that “among governors of both parties, few men enjoyed greater respect than Ray.”

He was not without critics. Some called him timid, lukewarm and uninspiring. “A man whose personality had all the zing of his favorite treat — a scoop of plain vanilla ice cream,” noted a 1997 Register profile of Ray.

Yet retired Register columnist John Carlson perhaps best assessed Ray’s hold on Iowa:

“Ray’s greatest talent seemed to be correctly assessing the mood of Iowans and having an uncanny sense of what they would and wouldn’t tolerate,” Carlson wrote. “He always, always remembered that Iowans are moderate by nature and never, ever are they extreme.”

One of the last formal honors Ray received was the Hoover Presidential Library Uncommon Iowan Award, in October 2015.

Ray was too ill to attend the ceremony, and Quinn, who worked on refugee issues with Ray while on loan from the State Department, accepted the award on Ray's behalf. 

Quinn recounted that Ray was the first governing leader anywhere in the world to offer to accept the Vietnamese boat people, who were drowning at sea. Ray’s Iowa SHARES campaign rushed doctors and nurses, food and medicine to starving Cambodian survivors of the genocidal Khmer Rouge. And he welcomed the Tai Dam people of Laos to be resettled in Iowa together, allowing them to keep their cultural heritage intact.

“Governor Bob Ray displayed the global moral leadership that thrust Iowa to center stage of international humanitarian diplomacy,” Quinn said, “and placed himself in the pantheon of Iowa's greatest historic figures.”

But Quinn also described a scene that offers perhaps a greater tribute than any award. Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, Ray was walking through a grocery store in Des Moines with his wife, Billie, when they encountered an Asian man pushing a shopping cart. The man recognized the governor, walked over from his cart and extended his hand. He told Ray, “You saved my life. I just want to say, ‘Thank you.’”


Former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray (seated, right) was honored in 2013, on his 85th birthday, as a new humanitarian award was named after him. The Robert D. Ray Iowa SHARES award is presented annually at the Iowa Hunger Summit.

1928: Robert Dolph Ray is born on Sept. 26 to accountant Clark Ray and his wife, Mildred.

1940: Ray wins his first election, as president of his Callanan Junior High School seventh-grade class.

1944: Ray meets Billie Lee Hornberger while attending a youth camp sponsored by University Christian Church.

1946: Ray graduates from Roosevelt High School in Des Moines at age 17. He joins the U.S. Army and spends two years in Japan as part of the first wave of relief troops.

1948: Ray returns to Des Moines and studies business administration and teaching at Drake University.

1951: Ray and Billie Lee Hornberger marry. The couple spends four months traveling Europe as part of an extended honeymoon.

1954: Ray graduates from Drake Law School and eventually joins the firm of Verne and James Lawyer in downtown Des Moines.

1956: Ray runs as a Republican for Polk County attorney. He loses by 10,000 votes in the heavily Democratic county.

1958: Ray runs for the Iowa House and loses, but becomes one of the first Iowa candidates to use television advertising.

1963: Ray, at 35, becomes chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.

1964: In Ray’s first election cycle as chairman, Republicans suffer major state and national defeats as part of the Democratic landslide led by President Lyndon Johnson. In Iowa, popular incumbent Gov. Harold Hughes, a Democrat, wins re-election. Republicans lose all but one of the state’s six seats in the U.S. House. Democrats carry large majorities in both houses of the Iowa Legislature.

1965: Ray orders tighter controls on how Republican committee money is spent.

1966: GOP campaigns are generally better organized, and the party sees substantial gains.

1968: Ray decides to run for governor, facing a three-man primary.

1968: Ray survives an April 22 plane crash, breaking his leg and ankle. He is on crutches for much of the campaign, but his grit impresses voters.

1968: Ray is elected 38th governor of Iowa at age 40.

1970: Ray uses the Iowa State Patrol, rather than the Iowa National Guard, to break up a student protest designed to block traffic on Interstate Highway 80. The use of state troopers is credited with reducing violence.

1970: Ray visits a summer concert attended by nearly 30,000 near Wadena. Hoping to avoid violence, he tells the crowd, “we want you all to leave here knowing you had a good time. Try to stay off the stuff, OK?”

1970: In November, Ray wins his second term as Iowa governor.

1971: Faced with a recession and a tax code that relied heavily on property taxes, Ray’s approval rating dips to a career-low 41 percent, according to a Des Moines Register Iowa Poll.

1972: Ray grounds all Iowa National Guard flights until the federal government pays for the losses of two Iowa families whose homes were wrecked by military airplane crashes.

1972: In November, Ray wins his third term after fending off a possible primary challenge by then-Lt. Gov. Roger Jepsen.

1972: An amendment to the Iowa Constitution changes the term of the governor from two years to four years.

1974: Ray wins his fourth term as governor and first four-year term, despite heavy losses for Republicans nationwide in the wake of the scandals enveloping the administration of President Richard Nixon, in a year when nine other incumbent Republican governors lost nationwide. 

1975: Ray opens Iowa’s borders to the first of about 3,500 Tai Dam refugees, an ethnic group who had fled persecution in Vietnam after the end of the war there.

1976: At Ray’s urging, the Iowa Legislature passes the Iowa Burials Protection Act, which protects burial grounds of Native Americans and others.

1976: Ray is considered by President Gerald R. Ford as a potential running mate, but Ford chooses Kansas U.S. Sen. Bob Dole.

1976: Ray becomes the first Iowa governor to occupy Terrace Hill, an 1869 mansion still used as the governor’s residence.

1976: Ray’s approval rating hits a career-high 82 percent, according to the Iowa Poll.

1978: Ray wins his fifth and final term as governor.

1978: Ray signs into law his favorite piece of legislation, the bottle bill, requiring a refundable 5-cent deposit charged on cans and bottles, an effort to reduce roadside litter.

1979: Ray receives Pope John II in Iowa on Oct. 4, 1979.

1979: Despite public opinion polls that oppose accepting more Southeast Asians, Ray successfully argues to reopen the state’s borders to refugee resettlement.

1979: In October, Ray visits Southeast Asia with a group of governors. After seeing the suffering in refugee camps, Ray helps organize Iowa Shares, a massive charity effort that raises nearly $2.1 million in today’s money to aid refugees.

1980: Though heavily courted by many campaigns, Ray remains neutral in the Iowa caucuses, which are eventually won by George H.W. Bush.

1982: Ray announces he will not seek a sixth term.

1983: Three months after leaving office, Ray becomes CEO of Life Investors Inc., a Cedar Rapids insurance firm.

1989: Ray joins IASD Health Service Corp. and oversees the merger into Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa, now known as Wellmark.

1997: Ray, 68, who had recently retired, is asked to serve as interim mayor of Des Moines after Mayor A. Arthur Davis resigns while facing terminal cancer.

1997: Ray helps found the Iowa Institute for Character Development.

1998: Ray is chosen to serve as president of Drake University, his alma mater, while the school searches for a new president after the departure of Michael Ferrari.

2005: Ray receives the Iowa Award, the highest civilian honor given by the state.

2013: Ray and his wife, Billie, move from their home to Wesley Acres along Grand Avenue in Des Moines, 10 blocks west of Terrace Hill.

2014: Drake University announces plan for new science, technology and math building that will house the Ray Center, an institute dedicated to promoting civility in public discourse.

2018: Ray dies July 8 at age 89.