Governors of Iowa: Robert D. Ray

Governors of Iowa | Episode
Oct 17, 2022 | 57 min

A widely respected political leader of the 1970s and early 1980s, Robert Ray is known for an even-handed approach to governing Iowa. His lasting legacy of welcoming refugees from communist-led countries in east Asia during the late 70’s forever changed the cultural fabric of Iowa. Ray’s legacy would last generations and emphasize civility and moderation in government, politics, and everyday life.


Funding for Governors of Iowa: Robert D. Ray is provided by --

Musco Lighting, the sports lighting specialists, providing lighting systems for you, your project and your community.


The John and Carole Lea Cotton Family Fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, established by John and Carole Lea to support agriculture, history, documentaries and arts programming on Iowa PBS.


Drake University is the proud home of the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center. The Ray Center at Drake University emphasizes civility, character development and ethical leadership. We celebrate Governor Ray's influence on Iowa and the world.



The morning ritual began as usual last Thursday. Robert Ray finished reading the paper in the front seat of the Governor's chauffer driven limousine, stepped out and walked through the private entrance to his office where he would tell reporters that after 14 years, the ritual would end in 1983. He wants a change.

Governor Robert D. Ray: I will not seek the governorship in 1982.


Dan Miller: What is it that Bob Ray wants to be remembered for?

Governor Robert D. Ray: Well, the best reward I could have is if people in Iowa had pride in this state and in themselves and in answering that type of question the other day I said I thought maybe what I'm most proud of, and I can't take credit for that, but I was here at that time and a part of it, is that people now have much more pride in their state. They're proud of their state. They're proud to be an Iowan. I just would like to be remembered as being a part of that period of maybe transition.


Governor Robert D. Ray spent 14 years as Iowa's Chief Executive. For some, he was a Governor for life. For others, he helped save their lives through refugee resettlement. A man defined by his even-handed approach to governance, a lifelong republican, who championed moderate resolutions and legislative compromise. A measured tactician of state government who demanded decision-making devoid of politics and earned the bipartisan praise of friends and foes alike. Robert Ray changed the perception of Iowa for decades to come and left a legacy spanning future generations.







In 1928, Robert Dolph Ray was born in Iowa's capital city of Des Moines. After graduating from Theodore Roosevelt High School in 1946, Ray would serve in the U.S. Army, an era post-World War peace time. Ray's experiences in the Army would broaden the Midwesterner's perspective, including time spent stationed in Japan. Ray would marry his high school sweetheart, Billie Lee Hornberger in 1951 and begin building a young family. He also developed another interest, the legal profession. After graduating from Drake University with a law degree in 1954, the young Iowan would build a private legal practice. But an itch for politics was not far behind.

David Oman: Robert Ray was a steadfast, mainstream, center right republican. He never varied. Keep in mind that he ran for two offices in the 1950s as a young man. He ran for state representative and ran for Polk County Attorney and he lost. So he decided the way for a political future, if he was to have one, was through the party, county chair, district chair, state chair.

David Yepsen: Bob Ray became Republican State Chairman in 1963.


The next year he would venture to San Francisco, California representing Iowans at the Republican National Convention. Robert Ray's political orthodoxy was forever changed by the 1964 presidential campaign. Ray was the youthful Chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. In the face of a popular democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Ray believed he should represent his constituents back in Iowa that desire a moderate approach within the Republican Party, especially in the face of potential conservative nominee Barry Goldwater. Ray would take his advocacy for moderation to the floor of the Republican National Convention.

David Yepsen: Bob Ray was a republican moderate and there were a lot of people in the Republican Party who were more conservative. He was opposed to the death penalty, he was pro-choice, now this was before Roe so it was a different era on the abortion issue.


His name was Robert Ray. He was 35 years old, Chairman of the Republican Party in the state of Iowa. For Bob Ray, the issues at San Francisco were clear cut and so was his responsibility.

Chairman Robert D. Ray: I mean, I feel my job here is to represent not just my own views, but those of the others, the people in the party back home who made me a delegate. Now, according to the polls, 60% of Iowa republicans are what you might call moderate. They don't favor Goldwater. They would prefer to have somebody else to vote for. And I can't ignore that.

(indistinct chatter)

Publicly Bob Ray was non-committal. Privately his decision was made. He would vote for William Scranton.


Before the official count of convention votes, Ray would watch friend and fellow republican Nelson Rockefeller ascend the podium. Moderates within the party in 1964 were concerned by the growing power of what they deemed a conspiracy-prone, far-right wing John Birch Society, from taking hold of the party platform.

To lead the attack for the First Amendment condemning the extreme right wing Birch Society came Nelson Rockefeller.

(applause & cheering)

There is no place in the Republican Party for such hawkers of hate, such purveyors of prejudice.

(crowd noises)

There is no place in this Republican Party for those who would infiltrate its ranks, distort its aims and convert it into a cloak of apparent respectability for a dangerous extremism.

(applause & cheering)

And make no mistake about it, the hidden members of the John Birch Society and others like them are allowed to do just that.

(crowd noises)

On the Convention floor, Iowa Party Chairman and Convention Delegate Robert Ray anxiously awaited the delegate count.

Iowa 24 votes.

Mr. Chairman, Iowa casts 14 votes for Senator Goldwater, 10 votes for Governor Scranton.

Mr. Chairman, the state of Maine casts 14 votes for Senator Margaret Chase Smith.


87 votes for Rockefeller, 5 votes for Goldwater.

57 votes for Senator Goldwater.

(crowd cheering)

He would personally support the candidacy of moderate Governor Robert Scranton of Pennsylvania. The votes would quickly go in another direction. A visibly anxious Ray could only watch as delegate counts would pile up for Barry Goldwater. The Arizona Senator would dominate the final tally. Ray would watch his moderate choice candidate concede and he braced for the potential fallout.

United and determined, we will go forward together, dedicated to the ultimate and undeniable greatness of the whole man. Together -- together we will win.


David Yepsen: Today, Goldwater would not be seen as all that radical. He would be more Libertarian. But at the time he was seen as dangerous, as reckless, as scary and this set the stage for democrats to win elections because voters were going in all over the country, not just here, and voting straight for democrats because they were so concerned about what Barry Goldwater might do. And in fairness, he was running at an awful bad time. Lyndon Johnson still had just become President after President Kennedy's assassination and there was still something of a halo around Johnson. And in 1964, the Republican Party got crashed and trashed in the Goldwater Hughes landslide. And the party was devastated. And Ray was the young state chairman who brought it back and he had a lot to do with the huge gains republicans made in 1966, better management of the party, better targeting. Yeah, it helped that it was the cycle after a landslide and the pendulum always turns back, but he was seen as somebody who was instrumental in bringing the Iowa Republican Party into the 20th century campaign wise and tactically and strategically and that got him around the state a lot.

After helping republicans win 88 state legislative seats and 3 new congressional seats, a rejuvenated Ray had his footing and was ready to pounce at the next political opportunity. A democratic juggernaut, current three-term Governor Harold Hughes was leaving his role as Iowa's Chief Executive and running for the U.S. Senate. Ray would jump into the 1968 Governor's race, needing a little luck to win the republican primary. The Des Moines lawyer would be up against two more rural conservatives.

David Yepsen: It was a three-way primary. Ray won it with about 43% of the vote. Now, you think of how that meant that about 60% of Iowa republicans wanted somebody else. And what had happened was that Johnson and Beck split the rural vote and the conservative vote enabling Bob Ray, the urban guy, the moderate guy, to win.

Scott Raecker: He had a tremendous personality. He had a great sense of humor. He had a wonderful smile and a great twinkle in his eye and he had a presence about him. When you were with Governor Ray at any point, if you were at a fundraiser, if you were at a ribbon cutting in a small town Iowa community or if you were at a large event in a more metropolitan area, if you were visiting with Governor Ray in a room you were the most important person to him during that conversation.

David Yepsen: The 1968 campaign was marked by Governor Ray being in a plane crash in the northern part of the state. And he had broke his ankle, was walking around with a cast for several weeks and that was a wonderful publicity stunt, albeit unintended. He got all kinds of media attention. He was hobbling around on this cast, which was distinctive. And it really kind of was very useful to him. A lot of democrats thought he carried that cast around a little too long. But it made him distinctive. And it also interestingly enough forced Mrs. Ray, who was a very meek and shy person, it forced her to get out of that shell and to get around the state and to campaign for him and she turned out to be a wonderful asset in that campaign and also then as First Lady. Everybody liked Billie Ray.


Now in a general election fight, Ray's campaign team deployed a secret weapon over the radio. Des Moines native and popular singer Marilyn Maye was hired to belt out a catchy new campaign theme. It was an immediate hit.

Hi, this is Marilyn Maye saluting a real winner for governor, Robert D. Ray.


Well everyone knows, it's time to step to the polls

And let a winner lead the way

Go cast your vote and choose the man of today

It's Robert D. Ray!

Now I-O-Way is saying he is the best

Yes he'll pass every test

Elect him governor and see

Yes now is the time

Choose a man in his prime

He'll make Iowa climb, you'll agree

On election day vote for Robert D. Ray

And let a leader show the way!


Governor Robert D. Ray: From the beginning of the campaign, I have found that it just meant work about 18 to 20 hours a day. And this is literally true, even though it sounds like a person has to have more than 4 hours of sleep a night. But during the campaign it would be possible to sleep in the car and we were on the go constantly. No matter how busy I was, no matter how often I'd have to go back to the office or I'd have to go to a meeting, I would always try to at least be home for dinner so I'd spend some time with my children.


Iowans would step to the polls and give Robert D. Ray a solid victory making him Iowa's 38th Governor. He would immediately begin setting the stage for a task he held in high regard, governance.

Governor Robert D. Ray: It is a tremendous responsibility, Fred, as you well know, when you have nearly 3 million people that you will be representing. But at the same time, it's a tremendous challenge and that challenge affords you I think the impetus to want to go forward and want to find answers to the many problems that face our state. And I really look forward to it. And I think it's wise to just always keep in mind that I'm not going to be doing this alone. I'm going to have lots of good help and a lot of people that really want to see Iowa advance and be progressive and find solutions to our many problems.

Ray may not have known in 1969 that this was only the beginning of five terms as Governor. His agenda would pick up from previous Governor Harold Hughes in attempting to modernize state government and drag an outdated bureaucracy into the 20th century.

Scott Raecker: In 1969, as he came into the governorship, he commissioned a study to take a look at state governance and what could be done. It's a fascinating booklet that breaks down every organization of state governance with its prior organizational chart and with a new organizational chart and it was very quintessential Governor Ray in the sense that he brought 40 or more people together to do the deep dive and the assessment of that and to make recommendations.


Ray embraced the nuts and bolts of government reorganization merging various departments, creating new ones when necessary such as the Iowa Department of Transportation and retooling the funding mechanisms for K-12 education in Iowa.


David Yepsen: Interestingly enough, he's one of the few governors has a business degree and he was considered himself a business person and a manager who also happened to be a lawyer. In fact, Ray would also joke when people would get mad at him and say, well you're going to lose votes over this, he said fine, I can go make more money some place else. And he could.

The work was laborious and meeting intensive. Ray would bring a unique style to decision-making.

Doug Gross: He was very much a republican but in terms of making decisions it wasn't through a partisan or even through a, certainly not through an ideological lens. He would always be tough on us because he would say, well the easy decisions are the political decisions. It's easy to decide what you should do that makes more political sense for you so you can further yourself. What's tough is trying to figure out what is the right thing to do and then trying to figure out how to sell that within a political system. That's the tough work of governance. And because of that he was exacting in terms of the decision-making process we would make. We would never talk about the political implications of a decision. If we would, he's usher us out of the office, literally. I know that sounds crazy today but that was absolutely the truth.

Governor Terry Branstad: So I was in on several meetings with him. Sometimes it would be groups that wanted things that he couldn't do. But he would listen and he would show empathy and so that is something I think a governor can do. He also had a great sense of humor. When there was a tense discussion going on, he could use a quip to kind of reduce the tension. So I learned a lot from just watching him.

He would champion extensive debate over legislative and managerial decisions and blend his Drake University business degree mindset with legal expertise.

David Oman: He worked around the clock. 15, 14, 16 hour days were not uncommon. And I would say whether you're looking at a particular item or a big picture thrust he could do both and did both pretty well.

David Yepsen: Some governors are micromanagers and that's not good because they can't run everything. Some governors are insecure and got to be involved in everything. And a leader of a big enterprise like that whether you're running state government or a major corporation is you've got to find good people, tell them what you want done and then get out of their way. You set the priorities, you're the face, you're the leader but somebody else has got to be the person that actually implements a policy.

Ray and his team launched a full frontal charm offensive with the Iowa National Press Corp. Daily press conferences would mark the early days of Ray's tenure and his staff were tuned into reporters and the potential news of the day.

Governor Terry Branstad: He did press conferences when he first became Governor every day.

Brice Oakley: The first, every staff person the first thing they'd do when they wake up in the morning before they had a cup of coffee is to read the Des Moines Register to find out what the Des Moines Register was talking about or wanted to know about and what he was going to be asked about at nine o'clock in the morning. And so he needed to be briefed on that. He would get out ahead of the story. Governors and those people in that position that don't, that think that the media is their enemy, make a serious mistake, in my view. And I think that was his view. He didn't like to be criticized by the media and that happens, it goes kind of with the territory. But it didn't happen very often because he was prepared and he would be candid.


David Oman: He loved working with the media, he liked them as people and the jobs that they were doing. So he always would tell Dick, who was my predecessor and me when I was the Press Secretary, that he wanted to talk to the press, he didn’t want us to be gatekeepers. There was a running joke in the office, well there were three phones ringing in the upstairs office. One is President Carter, one is Walter Cronkite from CBS and one is David Yepsen from the Register, and David always got his way and he would always get the Governor to pick up Yepsen's call first.

David Yepsen: Ray engaged the press at several levels. First, he was accessible. Secondly, he was proactive. He had good people that he hired to be his press secretaries and spokespersons. And they were very attuned to reporters and their needs and anticipating that David Yepsen is interested in this subject and so if we're doing something with that we'd let him know. So they were very proactive. They didn't just get in a reactive mode. If there was bad news they were very open about it and just a real textbook operation in terms of public relations.

Is that an indication that bureaucrats view you as a lame duck and they don't have to respond?

Governor Robert D. Ray: Well, you've just assumed a fact in the second part of your question that I don't think is factual from my answer to the first part. Do you want to think about that?


Governor Terry Branstad: I think they also had the idea that if you don't feed them raw meat they'll feed on you. That was a little bit of the reason for having the regular press conferences. The media would say, well the Governor is very open and we could ask him any question just about any time we want to. And I think that's good.

Governor Robert D. Ray: We're going to make some changes and as soon as we have all of that put together we're going to report to you people.


But a long-simmering dispute had been brewing for years and would test Governor Ray's mettle as a leader and as a stalwart defender of fairness. In 1968, before Ray assumed office as Governor, two unrelated plane crashes would forever change the lives of separate Iowa farm families. On March 5, 1968, an aircraft from the Wisconsin National Guard became disabled mid-flight. The pilot safely ejected. The plane careened into the Iowa countryside below destroying a rural farmhouse. A young Iowa broadcast reporter, Dean Borg, was quickly on the scene.

Dean Borg: This is all that remains of the Clarence McCarville farm home east of Cresco. And Air Force F102 crashed into it this morning. Air Force investigators say an 82-year-old woman who was inside at the time probably owes her life to a grove of trees just to the north of the farm home. When the supersonic F102 began to develop trouble while on a routine training flight, the pilot, 2nd Lieutenant John Wellmeyer of the Wisconsin Air National Guard bailed out. But his plane came down in a field just to the north of the McCarville farm home. The wreckage skidded through the north grove and a part of the fuselage ripped into the house. Mrs. McCarville was inside and her son Clarence, who was in an outside building at the time, ran to get her out of the burning home.


Dean Borg: Mr. McCarville, when did this all happen? 

Clarence McCarville: Around ten o'clock, before noon. 

Dean Borg: What was the first hint that you had that something was wrong? Where were you? 

Clarence McCarville: I was coming up through the yard and I heard just like a little boom went off and everything turned into fire. 

Dean Borg: Did you see the plane crash? 

Clarence McCarville: I didn't see nothing, just fire. 

Dean Borg: And you knew your mother was in the house. 

Clarence McCarville: Yes.  

Dean Borg: So what did you do?

Clarence McCarville: I headed for the house and by that time everything was under fire. I went inside the door and got her out and she didn't want to come out.

Dean Borg: Was she on the floor? Was she unconscious? 

Clarence McCarville: She was still standing up. 

Six months later in Central Iowa, another tragedy would fall from the sky. In early December 1968, an unrelated training mission for the Iowa National Guard was airborne north of Ames. Under the cover of darkness, three Iowa Air National Guard planes were on a training mission to intercept another aircraft. The pilot of one plane radioed an indistinguishable message just before plummeting to the Iowa soil. Near Story City, the plane made a long right turn and smashed into the ground near a corn crib on the Tjernagel farm, also known as Follinglo farm. Burning jet fuel splashed onto the house engulfing it in flames. The Iowa National Guard pilot and radar intercept officer were killed on impact. Miraculously, the farm family would escape before their home burned to rubble.

In the ensuing months, the Tjernagel family patriarch would pass away and the family would plead for compensation from authorities to pay for rebuilding their farm house. The Guard missions were national in scope, training exercises for a Cold War era. Iowa officials eventually demanded the federal government should pay for damages in Story City and Cresco.

David Oman: And the Pentagon, in a maybe somewhat predictable fashion, just sort of disclaimed any interest to solve any problem. And the Governor worked through the adjutant general at Camp Dodge, worked with people at the Pentagon, may have called the White House and it was not being resolved months and months and months and a year or more goes by and there is no resolution including one farm family who lost everything.

Ray believed the Nixon administration was slow walking efforts to make these Iowa families whole.

David Yepsen: Four years later, the federal government still had not paid those people. Nick Lamberto wrote a story for the Register about the plight of these people. They had lost their homes. One family was living in a chicken coop. And Ray just went bonkers and he talked to the, he even talked to President Nixon about it when Nixon was here to dedicate Red Rock Dam. And nothing happened. And Ray got hot.

David Oman: Ray finally in a fit of pique said, I'm not going to take this anymore and as Commander in Chief of the Iowa Guard signed a document that grounded the Guard. They couldn't fly a plane, they couldn't fly a chopper, they couldn't move a truck, they couldn't drive a Jeep. He just, you're done.

Iowa Governor Robert Ray said he was fed up with all the delays, which he said was a bad case of government buck passing. He ordered all methods of transportation of the State's Air and Army National Guard units grounded. The order put nearly 1,700 vehicles out of business. But the daring move worked and less than 24 hours later the Air Force dropped their opposition to the claim.

Governor Robert D. Ray: It was drastic action and I intended it to be because if that's what it takes to get the federal government to realize they have a responsibility to people in this country then I was willing to do that. After all, they're there to protect our people, not destroy them.

David Yepsen: The effect of that was Ray's stock as a Governor shot through the roof. I think of the Ray era as before he grounded the Guard planes and afterwards because early in his term he had a rough going, trouble with the conservatives, almost got beat in 1970. But when this was done in the mid-70's, Ray never had to worry about getting re-elected. He was sent into a political stratosphere he never came down from.


As republicans would face fallout from Nixon's downfall during Watergate, Ray was one of few to survive the political backlash.


Governor Ray became a nearly untouchable political figure by the mid-1970s. It helped him build consensus on critical and sometimes controversial legislative issues.

Brice Oakley: Governor Ray was a convener. He would convene. He would bring down frequently the legislative houses would be split, a republican Senate and a democratic House, for example. And you needed a convener, especially when they weren't talking to each other, they were playing basketball but they weren't scoring any points, it wasn't pretty.

Governor Terry Branstad: Governor Ray was always the diplomat that explained to people what was the art of the possible and what wasn't.

Scott Raecker: Governor Ray was a consummate ping pong player, very good, and he was very competitive and didn't like to lose. But he had a ping pong table in the basement of the Capitol for 14 years. And he used it to relieve stress with his staff. But he also used it as a way to build relationships with state legislators. He'd have them come down and they'd play ping pong together, by the rules of ping pong, but also the other rule that they played by was you could not talk about state budget, state policy, executive departments, politics. You could talk about your family, your life experiences, where you like to vacation, what your hobbies were. He used it as a way to connect with people.

As state employees threatened to strike without broad improvements in wages and benefits, Ray helped craft a legislative compromise creating a collective bargaining process for decades to come and what some describe as an essential Bob Ray bill focused on environmental cleanup later known as the Bottle Bill.

Governor Terry Branstad: One of his legacies was the Bottle Bill. That was something that -- and I was a sponsor of that, I lived on the Minnesota border and on Saturday nights we'd have all kinds of cans and bottles thrown out. As you'd go to church on Sunday morning you'd see broken bottles and everything and of course in the parks and everything. So I think that is one of the things that he was really proud of.

Crafted after similar legislation in Oregon, the simple yet effective Bottle Bill required deposits and publicly convenient return mechanisms at grocery stores. Ray was particularly proud to see its implementation and eventual impact on cleaning up Iowa's roadways, ditches and public parks from excessive litter. The mid-1970s was a time of transition for two key aspects of the Iowa governorship. The state Constitution was changed to make the two-year term a full four-year term. And the donation of Terrace Hill mansion to the state of Iowa, it became the home of Iowa Governors for generations to come.

Governor Robert D. Ray: I think that a governor who has had the number of years experience that I have can do a great many of the necessary things much quicker, much easier because of that experience. Secondly, I am not faced with the repeated campaign that I have been previously when I had two-year terms. And thirdly, I'm blessed with some good people in state government and particularly an office staff that is very much on top of things.


Ray would become Chairman of the National Governor's Conference and further develop a close friendship with President Gerald Ford. Meeting together in the Oval Office in Washington or the Governor's Office in Des Moines, Ford and Ray were like-minded republicans. Ray's interest in international affairs would bolster their relationship and lead to a defining legacy of the Iowa Governor's life.

As America retreated from the war in Vietnam and Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, a flood of refugees would fan out across Southeast Asia. One group, known as the Tai Dam, would flee Vietnam to Laos and later seek refuge in America as they escaped the brutal Communist regimes consolidating power in Southeast Asia. Their story kick started Governor Ray's most pivotal legacy, welcoming refugees to Iowa.

Scott Raecker: It starts with the Tai Dam relocation. They had already been relocated out of Vietnam and Laos, Thailand and then were in the United States and they petitioned every one of the 50 governors to please allow them to come to their state as a group.

Ambassador Ken Quinn: But the Tai Dam were going to be scattered all over. And they had their own distinct religion, their culture, their religious beliefs, their kinship and they said, all of that is going to be lost for us because there are not many of us and we're going to be scattered all around and we won't be able to keep any of this in tact. So they wrote letters to all the American governors with help from a man named Arthur Crisfield.

Governor Robert D. Ray: Well, my first introduction to the Tai Dam was a letter that came from a man by the name of Crisfield and he had been a government employee and was working in that part of the world and he knew about the Tai Dam and he wanted to help them. A good hearted individual, a very smart person. So I responded thinking maybe we could do that. And to my amazement I was the only Governor who responded.


A U.S. State Department policy would put the brakes on Ray's plan, until he went back to the White House and President Ford.

Governor Robert D. Ray: Then there was a glitch, there was a problem, and that was the State Department had a policy that refugees could not be relocated in a group in any one community. And there was logic to that because you can't just dump a lot of people in a community and think what that would do to schools when they couldn't speak the language and what have you. So I understood that. But I thought there was a good reason for the exception. And so I worked with the State Department and the White House and I remember making the trip to talk to Henry Kissinger and then to Gerry Ford and in the final analysis they agreed and they made the exception.

David Oman: We're welcoming people, we're open-minded people, we're honest people, we're good people, we have a heart. And so Iowa did its part and led the nation.

(plane engine)

Last fall, 633 Tai Dam refugees flew into the Des Moines Airport from their resettlement camp in Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Iowa had offered the Tai Dam a home. They came seeking a new life in a complex society very different from the one they had known. To preserve this culture and closeness, Iowa has offered a home to all Tai Dam refugees who have come to America.

Now, where are you going to live?


A sponsor -- where do they live?

I don't know -- Denison. Denison.

Denison? Denison, oh yes.

What we thought of America is the country of full richness.


Vinh Nguyen: When you talk especially with Southeast Asians, we consider him as the, I hate to say it, but almost our God, the Savior, especially the Tai Dam population. Who would have the courage to ask the President to take all the Tai Dam to the state of Iowa at the time, 1,500 of them?


The welcoming of Tai Dam to Iowa would become only the first chapter of Ray's relationship with refugee policy. In the late 1970s, Southeast Asian populations would suffer terrible treatment across Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, including torture, starvation and mass murder. This included South Vietnamese that had worked for, or sympathized with, the previous American war effort.

Vinh Nguyen: When I was growing up I didn't realize that I lived in a system that was oppression, the South Vietnamese and people who work for Americans and work for the South Vietnam government. So yeah, it was a tough time.

Across the globe in Iowa, Governor Ray would watch television reports of so-called boat people fleeing for their lives. Their journey outside of Vietnam was not without its own dangers.

Vinh Nguyen: After all this torture, robbed, rape from Thai local fisherman and from pirates. So there's a lot of things that we pay for our freedom. So if you ask me why did I leave Vietnam, that's what it was. If you look at the map how the boat people have escaped from Vietnam you could have seen so many directions, wherever they can go they did. A lot of people, especially South Vietnamese, decided to leave the country and the only way that they can really flee out of the country is by boat. So the term was coined as boat people for people from Vietnam who left or were being smuggled out of the country. I was smuggled out of Vietnam in 1981. So that name stayed with me as a boat person since then.

Governor Ray was set for a planned foreign trip of American governors to China. But he requested an additional stop in Asia to visit refugee camps near the border of Thailand and Cambodia. Upon arrival, local officials urged American governors and their staff to follow them to one of the region's largest encampments. Former State Department Diplomat Kenneth Quinn was with Ray.

Ambassador Ken Quinn: And strewn about this open field are 30,000 or so estimated human beings, all Cambodians, who are in the most unbelievably, most incredibly devastated state any of us had ever seen. It's like a scene out of Dante's Inferno, the seventh level of hell, the worst place, the worst suffering and 50 to 100 a day are dying and their bodies being bulldozed into mass graves. And those who are suffering, the children who are orphans. And Governor Ray has always had his camera and he took a lot of photos.

The horrors of Southeast Asia would embolden Ray to bring more refugees to Iowa. But first, he would need to rally support back home.

David Yepsen: I was going to head out to meet him at the airport and see what he had to say. And I remember in the newsroom talking about it, we were wondering, is he shooting pictures over there? Everybody knew he had a camera and would like to take pictures.

On the tarmac in Des Moines, Ray shared his experiences with reporter David Yepsen.

David Yepsen: It was emotional for him to talk about and he would look at me and he said, I watched people die. Well, that's pretty chilling.

Ambassador Ken Quinn: And then David Yepsen says, do you have any photos? Do you have any pictures?

David Yepsen: Can I have your film? We can process it. And he kind of stopped and looked at me, you could tell he was thinking about it, he said, sure.

Ambassador Ken Quinn: A pretty big moment for a politician to hand over all of the film, all of the pictures he had taken to a journalist.


David Yepsen: Even today I remember that as a powerful moment that really had struck him and moved him to continue acting to help these refugees.

Yepsen would take the photos back to the Des Moines Register newsroom. The next morning, Iowans were witness to the horrors of refugee conditions with the quote seared into the first paragraph. "I watched people die." Ray, his wife Billie, and Quinn would then go on statewide Iowa Public Television to share the photos and raise awareness.

Ambassador Ken Quinn: Somehow if you see adults dying it just doesn't have the impact, but children are so innocent, they're so helpless. And to see them with just skin and bones and the large protruding stomachs. I have a little three-year-old boy and I think of him and I came back home just to hold him again and you can't help but transpose and put him into that situation.

Governor Robert D. Ray: What we can promise once they get here is an opportunity. We don't offer any guarantees. The people we saw over there were just clinging onto a little hope that they might live. And with that in mind, it made me realize that we have to do what we can in whatever way we can to help them stay alive. And from then on it's up to us, not only us in Iowa and this country but the world, to find a way to give them an opportunity. And I don't know what greater calling there could be than to save human lives.

Ambassador Ken Quinn: The most critical moment when the Governor said, they're just looking for a hand to keep them alive, they're reaching out for a touch of life, was the phrase he used in the Governor's Office, and we have to choose are we going to extend our hand or turn our backs.

Governor Robert D. Ray: It isn't a question where these people will live. It's a question if they will live.

And I would just say that no matter how little you think you can offer, any small way is going to make a really big difference to these people because they have nothing.


Governor Robert D. Ray: I thought it was impossible for us to sit here in a land of plenty, to be blessed with so much and let those people over there who fought on our side die. I didn't think that was justifiable.


The plea for donations to help refugees would become the Iowa SHARES program, a mix of government, private sector and church groups fundraising to provide help for Southeast Asian refugees. But Ray believed his state and his country could open its doors wider to allow more refugees inside our borders. Governor Ray would take his efforts back to Washington.

Governor Robert D. Ray: Iowa would resettle an additional 1,500 refugees during this year. In this way, we hope to speed up the resettlement process here, thus relieving the pressure in the camps in Malaysia. At the same time, I wrote to the other 49 Governors asking them to determine what they might do in their own states to entry sponsorships.

Advocating in testimony before Congress and then going to President Jimmy Carter's administration to push for expanded refugee resettlement in states like Iowa and to advocate for other states to do the same. Ray would tell Carter that Iowa would double its number of refugees from Vietnam if the President would only reopen America's doors. In 1979, at the global conference on refugees, America would announce a massive expansion of its program, allowing 168,000 Asian refugees each year into the United States. Ray was an unlikely but persistent catalyst.

Governor Robert D. Ray: It was a thrilling moment. Everybody was on his or her feet. They were standing there cheering and the boat people were saved. Other countries then stepped up and offered to take so many. And so it was done.

But convincing Presidents and Governors to open borders to refugees was only part of his struggle. Many Iowa families had welcomed the Tai Dam and other Asian refugees in their schools, work places and classrooms. But Ray's fight for the hearts and minds of everyday Iowans was a persistent battle.

I think we should do all that we possibly can. My heart goes out to them. I know they're suffering a lot and I certainly think we should do everything in our power to help them. 

We need help bad.



Just the way I feel.

No I don't. I think they've got plenty right now. I think they should take care of what they got right now first before they go bringing in any more of them.

Oh, I think we've got enough now since there appears to be several of them on the public goals and unemployment and those kind of things. And I think we ought to take care of those that we have now and let some other states take on some of the load.

I think we've brought plenty of them in here now. That's my opinion.

No, I think we've got enough people here to feed ourselves right now.

Dean Borg: The idea that the refugee problem must be shared by all of us has been repeatedly verbalized here in Iowa and most ardently here by Governor Robert D. Ray. Governor Ray has taken that idea before Congress in lobbying for passage of a stronger nationwide refugee program.

Governor Robert D. Ray: We see by survey that a majority of people don't want us to help refugees at all. And that's kind of startling because we are a nation of compassionate people and I don't think we expected that. I think if we could just talk to all of them and make them realize that, first of all, these are not Communists that we are trying to help. These are people who are fleeing Communism. These are people being run out of their homes and are being starved by the Communists. And some people have the idea that we're allowing Communists to come here. Some people believe that we're taking jobs from others and that's unfair. And yet we have found that the refugees who have come into our state are basically taking jobs that are going wanting.

Governor Robert D. Ray: One woman called one night and told her who I was and I said, I understand you have a problem with what we're doing. And she said, yes. She said, how can you possibly bring those foreigners over here and give them our good jobs? Knowing what this call is about I had staff go through the Des Moines Register and count the number of ads for employment. And I said, I don't know how many, there were 400 or so. I said, I'll make you a deal. You go out and get one of those jobs before any of these people show up in Iowa. Big pause. She said, I get the point.

Every ethnic coming to Iowa we are all different. We come with different backgrounds from economic backgrounds, educational backgrounds, family backgrounds. Every ethnic group that I have seen in the last 35 years of my work, we are all different. So each of our ethnic groups have different ways to adjust to a new life in America, especially in Iowa. Some of us are doing quite well. Some of us are still struggling after years and years.

David Yepsen: Throughout American history we've had these controversies over newcomers, people coming here, fleeing crises, hunger, kings and dictators and it always comes with a push back from those who are here worried about somebody else coming in. And yet as we go along a generation or so later it's no big deal. We're a stir-fry country of people. But there is controversy constantly about immigration and there has been all throughout American history.



As Ray's governorship would head into the 1980s, his time as Iowa's Chief Executive was waning. His new Lieutenant Governor, Terry Branstad, was waiting in the wings, a much younger and also more conservative political protégé. After 14 years in office, some Iowans coined Ray as Governor for life when he stepped aside in 1982.

Governor Robert D. Ray: When I leave this office in January 1983 I will not be leaving politics, nor will I necessarily be leaving government for good. Quite simply, don't be surprised if you hear from me from time to time.

The remaining decades of Ray's life were extremely productive. He continued to champion refugee resettlement, led multiple Iowa businesses, traveled the world with his wife and served two more very public roles as fill-in Mayor of Des Moines and President of his alma mater Drake University. And in his final years, he championed character development and civility programs for Iowa youth.

Scott Raecker: So when I look at what is a Bob Ray republican, I look much beyond the politics of that. I look at why type of leadership do you have? And I think, again, his leadership was premised on core values that he grew up with and I think it was premised on a deep commitment to civility, to treat people with respect regardless of who they were or how they might have even treated him. And I think that helps me identify, at least for me, what I mean by being a Bob Ray republican.

Doug Gross: He was the kind of guy that made Iowa feel good about itself because he represented I think what we Iowans who are Iowan to a core believe we are, good, hardworking, reasonable people who care about each other, our neighbor and our country. That is who Bob Ray was.

David Oman: The refugees added to our economy. They got an education. They got jobs. Their families, their kids, many of them were valedictorians in their schools. They made our state a little more diverse. They made our state more special. They have added to the fabric and the context of our state and the fiber of our state. It was the right thing to do then, right thing when you look back in history. And so yes, that made it a legacy.

David Yepsen: Those people today have enriched Iowa in so many different ways that I think that's probably the thing, a living legacy will be what he did with refugees.


On July 8, 2018, Robert Dolph Ray passed away in Des Moines at the age of 89.


He would like in state in Iowa's Capitol rotunda.


Surrounded by dignitaries and hundreds of the refugees and families he impacted while in office and beyond.

Vinh Nguyen: It takes a lot for a human to give and he gave to people that he don't even know. He didn't even know who we are. It's a total stranger. We don't even speak the same language that he does. I thought that we lost hope but with that it gave us more hope and continued to do the work that we do to make sure that his legacy continues on. So it's up to us, the next generation, to do that.


In downtown Des Moines rests the Robert Ray Asian Gardens. Along the banks of the Des Moines River, the public park tells the story of Iowa's Asian community and how a Midwestern Governor helped bring refugees into the state's cultural fabric. It's an opportunity to continue sharing Ray's legacy.

Vinh Nguyen: I remember when I was there cleaning up and I saw two young refugees walking in the garden and enjoying the flowers and everything else. And I did ask them, I said, do you know what this place is for? And they said, no, it's a garden. I said, yes, but for whom, dedicated to whom? And they said, no. So I talked about Governor Ray to them, I talked about how great of a human he was, all he is today to us. And they said oh yeah, now we learn about something. So I said, this story should not stop here with you. You should take this story and talk to your parents who are refugees when they came here and why is it and ask them to come out and visit. He has left us a great legacy that I wonder if anybody can follow that.

If you could describe a philosophy of life let's say, what would it be for yourself?

Governor Robert D. Ray: Well, for me I would say I would like to be a person of value, not a person of name or title and that means there are so many aspects of life far more important than what I own materially, what I accomplished as far as titles are concerned. And to me, a life of value is much more than just what I might possess physically.

Governor Robert D. Ray: I think of the man that walked across a store one day and stuck out his hand and shook my hand and he said, thank you, you saved my life. Now tell me, could anybody give me a reward or an award or anything bigger than that? I don't think so.







Funding for Governors of Iowa: Robert D. Ray is provided by --

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The John and Carole Lea Cotton Family Fund at the Iowa PBS Foundation, established by John and Carole Lea to support agriculture, history, documentaries and arts programming on Iowa PBS.


Drake University is the proud home of the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center. The Ray Center at Drake University emphasizes civility, character development and ethical leadership. We celebrate Governor Ray's influence on Iowa and the world.