Memories of Bob Ray: undercover shutterbug, softball pitcher and Chinese picnic purveyor

Chuck Offenburger
Guest columnist
Gov. Bob Ray pitched for the Register & Tribune newsroom softball team in 1979.

When you’re a news writer, you shouldn’t let the people you’re covering become your heroes. But the truth is, former Iowa Gov. Robert D. Ray was one of my heroes, even while I was writing about him regularly back in the 1970s and ’80s.  I regarded him that way because of all the good he did as governor – serious accomplishments that you’ll read about elsewhere in today’s Des Moines Register.

But I also got Ray involved and wrote about him in a few lighter capers, things that weren’t really all that important but sure were fun.  And when the governor would take part in such things, Iowans got to see another side of him – and most of us wound up admiring him all the more.

Three vignettes particularly come to mind.

Ray had been governor 11 years by April 1979.  He had the highest name and face identity of any Iowan ever at that point.  Something else about him that most people today don’t realize – he was a terrific photographer.  He had a collection of top cameras, and he built and operated his own darkroom in his family’s private home in Des Moines.  We started talking about that during a break in some news event that he and I were both attending.  I quietly proposed an idea to him, for “a new kind of political polling – sort of.”

Current Chinese President Xi Jinping's father, Xi Zhongxun, is pictured with then-Iowa Gov. Bob Ray when the Chinese delegation visited Iowa as part of his 1980 trip to the United States. Xi was governor of Guangdong province at the time. The name of the translator pictured in this photo is Xu Liugen.

On a spring Saturday morning, I proposed, the Register would fly Ray and his Iowa State Patrol security trooper Dale Ward – both dressed casually in jeans and sweaters – somewhere near a small Iowa town.  I would drive there the night before, and meet them at the airport. 

We’d equip the governor with the cameras, film, bag and other equipment of one of the Register photographers – I think we used Bob Modersohn’s – and we’d simply call him “Bob the photographer.” He would take photos of people while I interviewed them about a fake news topic.  The one I picked was, “As winter ends and spring arrives in your town, just what’s on your mind?”  Of course, the real story would be “how many Iowans can recognize their long-time governor if he’s standing or crouching right in front of them taking their pictures?”

Ray loved the idea.  We settled on flying him and the trooper into Vinton in east-central Iowa, and then we’d drive to nearby Center Point for the actual interviewing and photos.  We were in Center Point by 9:30 a.m. that Saturday, and the first Center Pointer we stopped to chat with was Clifton Hicks, 61, local garbageman who was tilling his garden.  I introduced myself, started him asking questions, and learned that Hicks had “had winter right up to here,” signaling across his neck.

As “Bob the photographer” made the camera click and zing, I asked Hicks if he ever thought the governor of Iowa should issue a proclamation about that time of year, calling an official end to winter and an official start of spring.  The man looked at me curiously, but said, “That’d be a good idea.” And then I added, “Speaking of the governor, how do you think he’s doing?”

Hicks jumped on the opportunity. “Oh, I don’t have any kind words for him at all,” Hicks said. “I don’t think he’s got any smarts up here,” pointing to his temple.

Then I formally introduced them there in the garden.  Hicks blushed and stammered and then apologized profusely. The governor threw his arm around the man’s shoulders and reassured him. “That’s all right,” Ray said. “I’m a big boy. I can take it.”

In the business district, when we walked into barber Stan Primmer’s shop (they all called him “Primmer the Trimmer” back then), the barber wasn’t fooled at all.  But he didn’t say so as we went ahead and talked to – and photographed – several customers.  Then just as we were starting to leave the shop, Primmer looked up and said, “That’s a little unusual line of work for you, isn’t it Bob?”

We stopped in the back yard of Kathy Sebetka, who said she’d be happy to let “Bob the photographer” take pictures of her children Mike and Gloria, 10 and 8, trying to fly a kite. When the mom seemed not to recognize the photographer, I said, “Bob, didn’t you say you’ve been to Center Point before?” He answered, “Several times.” I suggested to her she might have seen him on one of his earlier trips there. “No, I don’t think so,” she said, looking him over closer. I stunned her when I introduced them.  “He’s Governor Ray?” she said, almost in shock. “Oh! That’s terrible!”  Ray answered, “Well, I don’t think I’m that bad!”  No not at all, Sebetka said. “I mean it’s terrible I didn’t recognize you,” she said. “Oh my gosh! It’s just that you don’t expect to find the governor of Iowa taking pictures of you in your backyard!”

After another six or eight interviews around Center Point – about half the people recognized Ray and half didn’t – we drove back to the Vinton airport. The governor and trooper flew on to their next appointment.  I drove quickly back to the newsroom in Des Moines to have the photos processed, and I wrote my column, for a big spread in the Sunday Register.

Three months later, I persuaded him to become a pitcher on our newsroom softball team – although this wasn’t an undercover mission. 

In July 1979, the Register & Tribune slow-pitch team had challenged a newsroom team from the Omaha World-Herald to a game we named the “Great Western Iowa Shootout” in the town of Anita, about midway between the two cities. 

We turned it into a weekend-long festival, with a cookout and talent show Saturday night downtown and the renowned West Des Moines Dixieland Band as the star attraction.  The game was Sunday afternoon on the ball diamond on the north edge of town. Gov. Ray was the starting pitcher for us, and Nebraska Gov. Charles Thone was the starting hurler for the World-Herald team.  More than 3,000 people surrounded the field, and the Dixieland Band played between innings. Great day!

Both governors did a fine job in their short pitching stints, and I gave them props in the game story I wrote for the Monday Register.

“As skipper of the R&T team, I can give this report,” I wrote. “My team played great Saturday night.  Unfortunately, the game itself was on Sunday, and that’s when the troops from the Omaha newspaper did their playing.  Oh, shoot, there’s no point trying to sugarcoat it: 29-10.”

About Gov. Ray’s performance, I continued: “In the second inning, Ray gave up two doubles, in succession, and was yanked from the game by R&T assistant coach Lillian McLaughlin,” a pixie-like older reporter for the Tribune who was a favorite of nearly all Iowa newsmakers and news writers alike.  McLaughlin, I wrote, “sent Ray to the dugout with the traditional, managerial whop on the rear end.”

My game story noted that R&T relief pitcher Richard Doak “gave up 12 runs before that second inning ended.”  Play-by-play broadcaster Bob Einhaus, of KJAN radio in nearby Atlantic, then yelled over the PA system to Gov. Ray in the dugout, “Governor, I’ve always said terrible things would happen if you were ever replaced!”

The longest amount of time I ever had around Gov. Ray was a year after he left office.  In March and April of 1984, we were among the 82 Iowans on a three-week-long “Friendship Force” trip to Iowa’s then-new sister state in China of Hebei Province, as well as to some other famous places in that huge nation.  Former Iowa first lady Billie Ray was actually the chairperson of our delegation.

Two of the three Ray daughters were along on that trip, I think, and the whole family provided our group terrific leadership.  They snapped photos of many of us astride huge camels at the Great Wall, and then later provided each of us with finished prints.

Our Chinese hosts went all out with their hospitality for all of us, too.  We were feted at a couple of banquets.  One night there was a symphony orchestra that performed for us, and it was explained to us that our hosts would appreciate it if at least one person in our big group would reciprocate by performing some song.  My recollection is that the Rays volunteered me.  Using a translator, the orchestra conductor and I determined that the only song the symphony knew that I knew, too, was “Home on the Range.”  Believe me, with strings and percussion behind me, I never sounded better on that old Western tune!

There were a couple of meals in China with a bit too much of their stout rice wine. I recall Gov. Ray even getting a little uncharacteristically loose once. And late in the trip, several of us had consumed just too much Chinese food that we were not accustomed to eating.  On one such evening, I remember the governor picking up a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter as we left a restaurant, and then several of us sitting on a curb and sharing it.

The grandest memory of that trip, though, came from Hong Kong on our way out of China. On one of our last nights there, many of us were going to a dinner aboard a large floating restaurant in Hong Kong Harbour.  To get out to it, we were divided into small groups and then helped into fairly large, inflated dinghys, which were motorized.

On a dinghy with me were Bob and Billie Ray; Rob Davis of KCCI-TV News, and his wife Pat Boddy, then of Iowa Public Television, and another Des Moines Register newsie Nick Lamberto, who was on vacation and not working.  We had a spectacular launch, with dozens of other boats and ships around us, and dazzling city lights on the skyscrapers ringing the port.

“I do remember thinking at the time that this was very, uh, I can’t think of the right word, but strange? Bizarre?  How did I get here?” Davis said recently when we were recalling that long ago evening. “We were bobbing around in Hong Kong Harbour in a small boat with the former governor of Iowa. We were a long way from home!”

But like most Iowans, almost always – as long as Bob Ray was leading us, we were fine.

Chuck Offenburger

Chuck Offenburger joined the Des Moines Register as a news reporter in 1972, then from 1977 to 1998 wrote the “Iowa Boy” feature column for the Register.  He continues writing in retirement from his farm home outside Cooper in southern Greene County in west central Iowa. You can reach him by email at