Iowans are bidding farewell this week to perhaps the most respected civic leader in our history. The body of former Gov. Robert Ray will lie in state at the Iowa Capitol today.
Ray, who died Sunday, built an impressive public policy record as Iowa’s 38th governor, implementing programs and policies which still impact Iowans’ lives.
He helped establish state boards and commissions focused on women, children, energy, the environment and government ethics. He signed legislation to establish the state’s school funding formula, create a deposit on bottles and cans, and exempt food and medicine from sales tax. He famously invited refugees to resettle in Iowa, where many remain today.
Similarly, Ray’s accomplishments before and after the governorship have left a lasting legacy. He was an Army veteran, state Republican Party chairman, interim mayor of Des Moines, interim president of Drake University, U.S. representative to the United Nations, CEO of two major Iowa companies, radio station owner, and board member of numerous nonprofits and corporations.
As impressive as his resume is, that’s not what elevated Ray from a respected politician to a legendary statesman. Instead, it was the way he treated people.
In the days following his death, some have observed nobody ever had a nasty thing to say about Ray. That’s barely an exaggeration. By all accounts, he was genuine and thoughtful in almost every interaction with fellow Iowans.
Ray’s decades in public life were marked by a level of civility and respect which seems to be missing in state and national politics now. He consistently had the vision and courage to reach across partisan lines in pursuit of what he saw as best for the state as a whole, not just his own political party.
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Ray is one of fewer than two dozen recipients of the Iowa Award, the state government’s highest citizen honor. He was presented with the award in 2005 by a Democrat, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack.
Ray lived his belief that Americans should work together and focus on our commonalities, rather than on differences which divide us. He encouraged people to find common ground and work together as Iowans, not as members of a party.
Ray’s spirit of public service endures among the individuals and organizations he touched, like the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University, with the mission of improving civility and developing ethical leaders. The center promotes the six “Character Counts” pillars to Iowa students — trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.
It is a fitting tribute to a man who dedicated his career to those values. We hope those lessons in classrooms throughout the state will leave a lasting impression on Iowa youth. One of them just may be the next Robert Ray, a leader to restore civility and unite all Iowans.
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