Robert Ray, 89; helped Vietnam refugees relocate to Iowa

Mr. Ray, a Republican, served as Iowa’s governor for 14 years.
Associated Press/file 1982
Mr. Ray (left), a Republican, served as Iowa’s governor for 14 years.

DES MOINES — Robert D. Ray, a longtime governor of Iowa who helped thousands of Vietnam War refugees relocate to the state and defined its Republican politics for years, died Sunday. He was 89.

Mr. Ray, who never faced a serious election challenge during his 14 years as governor, died at a nursing home in Des Moines, said his former chief of staff David Oman. Mr. Ray had been battling Parkinson’s disease for several years, Oman said.

Mr. Ray once said that his approach to governing was simple: leave politics out of the decision-making process.


‘‘I used to tell the staff, whenever we would talk about something like that, that you don’t start talking about politics at all,’’ Mr. Ray said during an interview in November 2011. ‘‘Let’s just decide what the right thing to do is, and then we’ll decide how to promote it.’’

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Mr. Ray decided not to again seek reelection in 1982.

Recalling his time at the state’s helm, Mr. Ray said he was especially proud of his work beginning in 1975 to resettle refugees from the Vietnam War in Iowa. The state 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,’’ Mr. Ray 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. He graduated from the Drake University law school in 1954, and became active in Republican politics while practicing law. He 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 Barry Goldwater 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.

Although Mr. Ray was a 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 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.’’


But she noted that Mr. Ray ‘‘always had such a presence and generosity that kind of transcended whatever the chaos of the day was.’’

‘It was saving the lives of refugees. People would say that you might not getreelected and I would say I can make more money if I don’t get reelected.’

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.

‘‘He was an honorable man who did a lot of good things for the state,’’ Fitzgerald said a November 2011 interview.

Iowa’s current governor, Kim Reynolds, praised Mr. Ray’s leadership.

‘‘His civility, courage, and common-sense governing set a high standard for those who followed,’’ Reynolds said Sunday.

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,’’ Mr. Ray said. ‘‘Money isn’t the only reason you exist.’’