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Obituary: Iowa mourns former Iowa Governor, Robert Ray, dead at 89

Gov. Robert Ray laughes during his last press conference, on Jan. 13, 1983.
Gov. Robert Ray laughes during his last press conference, on Jan. 13, 1983.

DES MOINES — Robert D. Ray, Iowa’s governor from 1969 to 1983, is being remembered as a skilled and popular leader and for the welcome he extended to war refugees during five terms in office.

Ray, 89, died early Sunday in Des Moines, his family confirmed. He had dealt with Parkinson’s disease and died peacefully of natural causes at Wesley Acres, according to David Oman, Ray’s former chief of staff.

“Bob Ray defined the modern era governorship for Iowa and beyond,” Oman said. “More importantly, he touched the lives of three generations of Iowans, who respected, trusted and followed his leadership. He will be greatly missed by many; his legacy will extend for decades to come.”

A Republican who received vice presidential consideration, Ray served a then-record five terms as governor spanning 14 years — a record later eclipsed by his succeeding Lt. Gov. Terry Branstad.

Ray was known for his leadership skills and his humanitarianism, having reached out to Southeast Asian refugees displaced by military conflicts in that region to resettle in Iowa during the 1970s.

Ray’s tenure as governor produced a number of significant achievements in the areas of open meetings and open records, collective bargaining for public employees, nonpartisan redrawing of congressional and legislative boundaries, and creating a bottle-deposit law to clean up the environment and control littering, along with reorganizing state government and Iowa’s judicial system.

Ray was elected governor in 1968 and re-elected four times until stepping down in January 1983. He later served as chief executive officer of two insurance firms, one in Cedar Rapids — where he resided for a time — and one in Des Moines. In the late 1990s, Ray was acting mayor of Des Moines and then president of Drake University.

“Gov. Ray’s legacy lives on in the millions of people that he impacted as a tremendous statesman for Iowa and our nation. His civility, courage and common-sense governing set a high standard for those who followed,” current Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement Sunday.

“May our prayers and thoughts bring peace to first lady Billie Ray, her daughters and family at this time,” Reynolds added.

There was an outpouring of condolences and remembrances from Iowans Sunday as word spread of Ray’s death.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Ray will be greatly missed.

“A soldier, statesman, citizen and CEO, Bob Ray was a profile of an American patriot. From my years in the Statehouse through my first term in the U.S. Senate, I witnessed Gov. Ray strengthen the grass roots of our party, make Iowa a better place to grow and build our state’s economy,” Grassley said.

“Gov. Ray had a tremendous impact on Iowa, the United States and the world,” said Drake University President Marty Martin. The Des Moines campus where Ray received his business and law degrees and later served as its 11th president for slightly more than a year ending in May 1992 had lost a “cherished friend, distinguished alumnus and former colleague,” Martin added in a statement.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate recalled meeting the former governor in his Capitol office during a Boys Scouts proclamation signing in the 1970s. “Gov. Ray gave me an Iowa flag and the lapel pin he was wearing. It was that meeting that spurred my lifelong commitment to serving others,” he noted.

Pate called Ray a model, “one-of-a-kind” leader who “leaves behind a tremendous legacy.”

Retired Des Moines businessman Fred Hubbell, the 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, praised Ray’s example of “courageous and compassionate leadership.”

“He was an Iowan first, always putting what was best for the people and this state above all else,” Hubbell said in a statement. “A testament to this was his constant work across the aisle to push and pass landmark accomplishments like collective bargaining for Iowa workers, the Iowa Bottle Bill to clean up Iowa roads, and his welcoming of war-torn refugees that have enriched Iowa communities. He will be greatly missed, but his legacy will live on in those deeds.”

Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price issued a statement saying Ray “lived and led with Iowa values” that shaped the state “for the better.”

“Our hearts are with Gov. Ray’s family, friends, and all Iowans mourning his passing,” Price added. “Although we were from different sides of the aisle, we know and hope his legacy will live on for years to come.”

Adam Gregg, Iowa’s acting lieutenant governor, called Ray “a giant” in Iowa history who left an indelible mark on the state. “He will be remembered as a leader who earned the respect of Iowans of all backgrounds and beliefs,” Gregg said. “May he remain a role model to us all.”

Ray is survived by his wife, Billie, three daughters and eight grandchildren.

Plans for celebrating Ray’s life will be shared later, Oman said Sunday.

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com