Robert D. Ray, a former Iowa governor who helped thousands of Vietnam War refugees relocate to the state and defined Iowa’s Republican politics for years, died July 8 at a nursing home in Des Moines. He was 89.
The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his former chief of staff David Oman.
During his 14 years as governor, Mr. Ray never faced a serious election challenge before he decided not to seek reelection in 1982.
Recalling his time at the state’s helm, he said he was proud of his work beginning in 1975 to resettle refugees from the Vietnam War in Iowa. The Des Moines Register noted that many leaders in his church, the Disciples of Christ, were less than eager to involve themselves in aiding the refugees. He addressed the issue head on at a national convention in St. Louis, where he invoked Missouri’s motto as the “Show Me State.”
“Don’t tell me of your concerns for these people when you have a chance to save their lives. Show me,” he said. “Don’t tell me how Christian you are. Show me.”
Iowa became one of the largest resettlement locations in the United States, and Mr. Ray dismissed any notion that relocating thousands of people fleeing Vietnam to his largely rural Midwestern state would carry political risks.
“It was saving the lives of refugees,” he said. “People would say that, ‘You might not get reelected,’ and I would say, ‘I can make more money if I don’t get reelected.’ ”
Robert Dolph Ray was born in Des Moines on Sept. 26, 1928. After Army service in the post-World War II American occupation of Japan, he graduated from Drake University in 1952 and its law school in 1954. He became active in Republican politics while practicing law and eventually was considered a leader of the party’s moderate wing.
He became chairman of the Iowa Republican Party and was credited with rebuilding it after the devastating GOP losses in 1964, when conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona headed the party’s national ticket and lost in a historic landslide to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Mr. Ray was rewarded for his efforts with his gubernatorial win. He also served as chairman of the National Governors Association, the Republican Governors Association, the Midwestern Governors Association, the Education Commission of the States and the Council of State Governments.
In 1951, he married Billie Hornberger. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children and eight grandchildren, according to the Register.
Although Mr. Ray was a staunch Republican throughout his life, some of his decisions seemed to run counter to GOP leanings at the time.
He signed into law the state’s bottle deposit system, which encouraged recycling by tacking a fee on soda and beer bottles that was repaid upon their return. He also created the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women, which advocates for policies that benefit women and girls. He also signed executive orders promoting civil rights and energy conservation.
“Obviously he was intelligent and a good politician, but he also had this compassion and forward thinking,” veteran Republican activist Becky Beach said in 2011. “To be a conservative Republican and talk about women’s rights was not something that everybody looked favorably on.”
She noted that Mr. Ray “always had such a presence and generosity that kind of transcended whatever the chaos of the day was.”
Jerry Fitzgerald, who served as Democratic House majority leader during part of Mr. Ray’s tenure, said the former governor was reasonable and wanted to solve problems.
Current Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, praised Mr. Ray’s leadership. “His civility, courage and common-sense governing set a high standard for those who followed,” she said.
Mr. Ray remained active in public life after leaving the governor’s office, including serving as interim mayor of Des Moines in 1997, the same year he helped form the Institute for Character Development at Drake University. A year later, he served as the university’s interim president.
What attracted him to politics, he said, was the chance to work with people and improve their lives.
“There’s an excitement about being able to help other people, particularly in the governor’s office,” he said. “Money isn’t the only reason you exist.”