Robert D. Ray, born in 1928 near the campus of Drake University, in Des Moines, took to politics early.
When he was in the 11th grade, was elected class president at Callanan Middle School, and later when he was at Drake, to student body president.
After graduating from Drake Law School, he became a trial lawyer, practicing in Des Moines. But he still was interested in elected office − in the 1960s, he lost bids for Polk County Attorney and a legislative seat before taking over as chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.
In 1968, Ray won a three-way primary, and later his first general election, to become Iowa’s 38th governor.
When Ray took office in January 1969 − during a time of cultural upheaval, civil rights marches and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy − he brought what many considered was a measured approach to governance.
“I always said it was the lawyer in him. If there ever was a situation where he had to make a decision, he always looked at both sides until he knew both sides well enough that he could make a very good decision that he felt was right for him,” Billie Ray, his wife of 65 years, said during a 2014 interview with The Gazette.
“I don’t think he ever looked at it politically but what was best for the state and for the people, and that was kind of the way a trial lawyer does it. You never got a real quick answer out of him because he had to analyze everything,” she said.
Those traits were tested during a rock festival in Wadena, in Fayette County; when University of Iowa campus unrest neared a boiling point; and when rioting inmates took hostages and killed a fellow prisoner at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. Brice Oakley, a former aide, noted that law enforcement officers credited Ray’s handling of those situations in defusing what could have become more-explosive events.
But no issue elevated Ray — and Iowa — to the international stage as his handling of the resettlement of people displaced by the Vietnam War.
After the fall of Saigon, the United States had evacuated about 130,000 people out of Vietnam and Indochina, and each U.S. state was taking a proportionate share of refugees. During this time, Laos also became a Communist nation, causing some to flee to Thailand and live in makeshift camps.
Among these vulnerable refugees were a group of several thousand Tai Dam and Hmong refugees who were about to be scattered and their ethnic and cultural ties severed, said Ken Quinn, who then was involved in the refugee program via the National Security Council.
Ray “stepped forward and showed amazing leadership” in successfully petitioning to have those refugees brought to Iowa as a group under the sponsorship of various religious and humanitarian organizations, Quinn said.
Later Quinn became part of Ray’s administration on loan from the U.S. State Department in 1978 when an extraordinary scene unfolded in Vietnam, where people fleeing a repressive regime attempted to escape by boat and were drowning in the South China Sea or being forced to live in squalor because no country would accept them.
Ray, who saw a televised report of the unfolding tragedy, was moved to action. He pushed Washington to reopen America’s doors to refugees and wrote each governor asking them to join Iowa in once again resettling the “boat people” caught in the crossfire of political upheaval.
Ray, who held positions as an elder and deacon in the First Christian Church of Des Moines, wrote all the governors to ask them to help the boat people.
“I am writing to let you know that you can have a direct effect on the saving of lives. I want to ask your help in relieving the suffering of the refugees fleeing Communist rule in Southeast Asia,” Ray said in a 1979 letter to then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton that is housed in the Ray archives at the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
Ray accompanied Vice President Walter Mondale to a U.N. conference in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1979 about the boat people where Mondale announced U.S. plans to accept 168,000 refugees and assist in their transfer.
A few months later, Ray was part of a delegation traveling to China, which had normalized relations with the United States. At his urging, the delegation visited Thailand to look at refugee issues.
But upon arrival, they were shuttled to the Thai-Cambodian border where about 30,000 Cambodians had fled to escape the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and were living in open fields with few supplies.
Ray, an avid photographer, shot photos of the scene, which he shared with news organizations upon his return to Iowa. The photos spurred calls for action, and Quinn spearheaded an Iowa SHARES — Iowa Sends Help to Aid Refugees and End Starvation — effort that raised $600,000 to send food, medicine, emergency supplies, and even doctors and nurses to help provide relief.
Out of office
When he left office, Ray did not shrink quietly into retirement. He and his wife moved to Cedar Rapids, where he served as president for Life Investors Inc. — now Transamerica — from 1983 to 1989.
During that period, the former governor also served for six months as U.S. representative to the United Nations in 1984. He returned to Des Moines in 1989 to serve as president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Iowa in Des Moines for eight years.
When the mayor of Des Moines died in 1997, Ray stepped in as the city’s interim mayor. And when the president of Drake University, Ray’s alma mater, left for a university job in Texas, Ray stepped in as the private college’s interim president of Drake University for nearly two years.
In his later years, he resided in an assisted living facility in Des Moines.