Former Iowa Governor Ray's life, legacy draw accolades at funeral ceremony

Former governor lauded as global humanitarian

Courtesy of Drake University.
Courtesy of Drake University.

DES MOINES — Former Gov. Robert D. Ray was laid to rest Friday by Iowans who hailed him as one of the state’s most-beloved, highly regarded and influential statesmen through his compassionate, consensus-building leadership amid turbulent events.

“He changed the world for the better” during his productive, 89 years of life, said the Rev. Bill Spangler-Dunning, regional minister and president of the Christian Church in the Upper Midwest, who officiated at the funeral attended by Ray’s family, many dignitaries, friends and acquaintances.

Ray, Iowa’s 38th governor from 1969 to 1983, died Sunday.

He was buried Friday morning in a West Des Moines cemetery before a memorial service was held at the First Christian Church where he met his high-school sweetheart and wife, Billie.

The church is across the street from the Drake University campus where Ray earned his business and law degrees and served both as student body president and then as the univeresity’s interim president decades later.

The former governor and Republican icon was remembered as a lover of people, as well as of ice cream, hot dogs and chocolate chip cookies. He also had a penchant for photography, tennis, softball and pingpong, recalled those who knew him best, including an army of former staffers who dubbed him RDR.

“He defined the modern Iowa governorship,” said David Oman, a longtime Ray aide and confidante who was one of three associates who delivered eulogies at Friday’s observance.

He noted Ray met one pope during an Iowa visit, worked with seven presidents and demonstrated his bond with Iowans by winning re-election when “Washington was awash in Watergate” and nine other GOP governors lost.

“Gov. Ray knew how to campaign, he knew how to govern and he knew the difference,” said Oman.

Oman began to list the former governor’s many accomplishments but advised those unfamiliar with the Ray legacy to “look them up” because there were too many to mention. He called Ray a leader with a “keen mind, warm heart and a bias for action,” who also demonstrated “a very real human touch.”

Ken Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador and Ray aide who now leads the World Food Prize organization, choked back tears when he recounted Ray’s humanitarian efforts in the 1970s to rescue and resettle Southeast Asians from war-torn countries when no other elected leader had the courage to offer a lifeline.

When confronted by a scene of human suffering, Ray responded not as a politician concerned about his p[olitical future, “but as a Christian following the moral imperative from the parable of the Good Samaritan,” he said.

“Through his action, Gov. Robert Ray answered the eternal question: Am I my brother’s keeper?” Quinn said. “Gov. Ray uplifted my life. He uplifted all of your lives, and his legacy will uplift countless thousands and thousands of others far into the future.”

R. Scott Raecker, a former state representative who guides the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University, paid tribute to the governor’s family and the 73-year love affair the Rays had that started in a church camp in the building where Friday’s memorial was held.

He urged those in attendance or watching the service’s online livestream to honor Ray’s legacy by aspiring to be better people.

“He has created a void in our lives and that hurts,” Raecker said. “But the real void would be if we never had his presence in our lives.”


Oman told several hundred people who gathered Friday that “Gov. Ray’s life ended without regret or remorse” while Spangler-Dunning noted that Ray “left this world better off than he found it and he challenges us to do the same.”

The service ended with the church organist playing Ray’s trademark campaign theme song, “Step to the Rear (and Let a Winner Lead the Way),” to a crowd that included three former governors — including Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China — current Gov. Kim Reynolds and many of Iowa’s elective, civic and community leaders.

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