© 2022 Iowa Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray Dies at 89

John Pemble/IPR file
Former Gov. Ray remained popular long after leaving office. In 2014, he was named "Iowan of the Day" during the State Fair.

The Iowa governor who opened the state’s arms and heart to boatloads of Southeast Asian refugees in the years following the Vietnam War has died at the age of 89.

Bob Ray was a 40-year-old attorney and chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa when he was first elected governor in 1968.

During a time of social and political turmoil, he brought a measured approach to the job.

He held the office for 14 years.

The compassionate stance he took during the last half of the 1970s left a lasting mark on his home state.

As the Vietnam War was coming to an end and the region was falling under Communist rule, the Tai Dam sect of Southeast Asians put out a call to every governor in the U.S. pleading for a place they could resettle as an entire group.

The only one to answer was Gov. Ray.

In an interview with Iowa Public Radio a few years ago, he explained what he was thinking.

“On my mind was how do we save lives, and Iowans stepped up and literally saved lives, and that was our mission, and we’ve been richly rewarded as a result,” he said.

Ray’s decision to provide a home for the Tai Dam was not universally embraced.

A Des Moines Register poll taken around the time showed 51 percent of Iowans opposed the move.

Those who relocated from harsh refugee camps to a small state half-a-world away became eternally grateful.

Som Baccam was 11 years old when she boarded the first plane of Tai Dam to land in Des Moines.

At a birthday celebration for Ray, she thanked him.

“Forever he will be always in the Tai Dam community’s heart," she said. "He is our savior. This is our home now, so we do have a place to call home.”

Ray did not end his generosity toward Southeast Asian immigrants with the Tai Dam.

Toward the end of the 1970s, he was moved by a television documentary about the so-called “boat people” of Vietnam.

He took action again.

The president of the Des Moines-based World Food Prize Foundation, Ken Quinn, was then working in the governor’s office helping with resettlement.

“He wrote to President Carter and said Mr. President, if you will just reopen America’s doors we will double the number of refugees we’ve had just to rescue these boat people,” Quinn said.

Ray traveled to refugee camps in Thailand to witness firsthand the living conditions.

At one stop, he spotted an Iowa DOT map with pins to identify where friends and family had moved.

Ray’s public service did not end when he left the governor’s office.

He stepped in as interim mayor of Des Moines in 1997.

He served as interim president of his alma mater Drake University in 1998.

On the business front, he was president of Life Investors Incorporated in Cedar Rapids, now known as Transamerica; and president of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Iowa.

With the nation deeply divided over immigration, and with political rhetoric stirring the pot, it’s relevant to listen back to Gov. Ray’s thoughtful attitude toward the subject.

“We learn from each other," he said. "We’re not isolated. We’re not some little pinpoint. We’re part of the world, and we should be a leader.”

Robert D. Ray is survived by his wife, Billie, three daughters, Randi, LuAnn and Vicki, and eight grandchildren.