Gov. Bob Ray brought out our best, made us proud to be Iowans
Statesman. The gold standard. Patriot. Visionary. Courageous. Role model. Humanitarian. Inspiration. A giant. Public servant.
Those are just some of the ways Iowans of all political stripes have described former Gov. Bob Ray, who died Sunday at age 89.
It’s hard to imagine another Iowa politician whose life and work would receive such unreserved, bipartisan praise.
Ray created enduring legacies as governor that served Iowans well, long after he left office. His appeal to Iowans is about more than just bills signed and the exercise of executive authority. But his list of accomplishments is prodigious.
Ray brought state government into the modern era.
It was during Ray’s tenure that the governor’s term in office expanded from two years to four, significantly enhancing the power of the office. He also set the standard for long-serving governors and was surpassed only by his successor, Terry Branstad. He was the first governor to live in Terrace Hill, the historic mansion on Grand Avenue once owned by the Hubbell family.
The school funding formula was rewritten and expanded under Ray’s watch, reducing reliance on property taxes. Iowa schools were considered among the best in the nation during his time in office.
He reorganized agencies to create the Iowa Department of Transportation. A new Iowa Tuition Grants program benefited students at private colleges, like his alma mater, Drake University. He signed legislation exempting food and medicine from the state sales tax.
- Iowans react to the death of former Gov. Bob Ray — many with praise for his policies toward refugees
- Bob Ray, beloved 5-term Iowa governor, dies at 89
Some of his progressive achievements might have young Iowans double-checking his party affiliation in disbelief – including his establishment of an Iowa Commission on the Status of Women, his executive orders on civil rights, his promotion of a bottle and can deposit, and establishment of the precursor to Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources.
Among his greatest work, of course, was fostering an ethic that encouraged Iowans, and the nation, to welcome and embrace refugees. While the federal government was dithering and other states sat on their hands, Ray actively worked to resettle Southeast Asians displaced by the Vietnam war. He said it was not an option to “just sit here idly and say ‘Let those people die.’ ”
Ray’s creation of the Governor’s Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement later became Iowa’s Refugee Service Center. It made Iowa a destination for Sudanese refugees in the early 1990s and later people fleeing war in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia. Burmese refugees also found a home in Iowa.
Some of Ray’s work has been chipped away in recent years. The state’s refugee services bureau has diminished. In 2014, Branstad yanked away the welcome mat to the thousands of unaccompanied children arriving from Central America, saying he didn’t want any to relocate to Iowa.
In 2017, Branstad’s final year in office, the GOP-controlled Legislature dismantled much of the collective bargaining law for state employees enacted under Ray in 1974. The Legislature eliminated most state employees’ right to bargain for anything except wages.
Ray was the last of the great Republican moderates in Iowa, one of a dying breed. There’s little doubt that many of the GOP leaders who are praising him today would have refused to endorse him were he on the ballot in 2018.
But Ray’s legacy isn’t just about politics or policy. It’s about who he was as a person.
His willingness to serve as interim mayor of Des Moines – and later interim president of Drake University – after leaving office had Iowans joking about the state’s best-known temp worker. But it was part of Ray’s DNA to serve, even in lower office.
In an era defined by the social graces of Jack and Jackie Kennedy, Ray was genteel and courtly. But he was known to prefer meals at fast-food hamburger joints over fancy restaurants. After he retired, he and Billie were often spotted dining at McDonald's on Grand Avenue with their daughters and grandchildren – he was a fan of their ice cream cones.
In the end, it is his commitment to civility that defines the public policy center named for him and his wife, Billie, at Drake University. The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center’s core mission is to teach children about civility through the Character Counts program and to foster ethical leadership around the country and the world.
Ray brought out the best in people. He made Iowans proud to live in this state. We hope and pray that his legacy will inspire future generations of courageous, humanitarian, visionary statesmen and stateswomen who will renew that pride.
Editor's note: This story was updated from its original publication online to correct the date that Gov. Ray signed Iowa's collective bargaining law. It was 1974.