Robert Ray Obituary

Robert  D. Ray
Robert D. Ray

September 26, 1928 - July 8, 2018
Born in Des Moines, Iowa
Resided in Des Moines, Iowa


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Robert D. Ray was born in Des Moines on September 26, 1928, and passed away in Des Moines July 8, 2018. In the intervening years, Bob Ray’s leadership touched the lives of Iowans on dozens of fronts and reached global impact on several occasions.

Ray grew up in the Drake neighborhood and met the love of his life and future wife, Billie Lee Hornberger, at what is now First Christian Church while they were students at Roosevelt High School. The Roosevelt High School sweethearts started dating in 1945 and were married on December 22, 1951. His life revolved around love of family, first as a son and brother, followed by his passion to be a devoted husband, dedicated father to the Ray’s three daughters and adoring grandfather to their eight grandchildren.

After World War II, Ray served the U. S. Army in Japan. He graduated from Drake University with a business degree in 1952 and law degree in 1954. He was a law and reading clerk in the Iowa State Senate, where he began to understand government and relish politics. Later, he built a successful practice as a trial lawyer.

In 1963, Ray was elected Iowa Republican State Chairman. After heavy losses in 1964, the Ray led GOP elected three new Congressmen and 88 state legislators in 1966.

After winning a hard-fought primary, and surviving an airplane crash, Ray was elected Iowa’s 38th Governor in 1968. He was re-elected in 1970, 1972, 1974 and 1978. Because Iowans appreciated his steady, open, bipartisan leadership, Ray became the state’s first four-term, then five-term Governor.

During his tenure, Iowa expanded funding for K-12 education, created a merged DOT and eliminated the sales tax on food and drugs. In the late 70s, Ray led the way for bottle and can deposit legislation, dramatically cleaning up Iowa’s roadsides.

During the Ray years, students at two dozen private colleges benefitted from the novel Iowa Tuition Grant program. Ray worked with business and labor on breakthrough legislation while improving Iowa’s business climate and promoting ag-business trade on three continents.

Governor Ray established the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women and issued Executive Orders advancing civil rights.

During his 14 years in office, Ray chaired the National Governors’ Association, Republican Governors’ Association, Midwest Governors’ Association, the Education Commission of the States, and president of the Council of State Governments. In 1974, Time magazine named Ray as one of America’s Rising Young Leaders.

In the late 1970’s Governor Ray became a worldwide leader in the humanitarian re-settlement of refugees from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam by helping them relocate, find jobs, and start new lives in Iowa.

In 1979, Ray was a member of the U.S. delegation to the Special United Nations Conference of Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. He later served as a U.S. Representative to the United Nations in 1983.

After leaving office, the Rays moved to Cedar Rapids where he became President and Chief Executive Officer of Life Investors, Inc., later known as AEGON. The Rays moved back to Des Moines when he became President and CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Iowa. Ray owned radio station KILR in Estherville and was co-owner of WMT in Cedar Rapids.

Governor Ray was a member of the Iowa Business Council and served on the boards of directors of The Maytag Corporation, AEGON USA, Norwest Bank (nka Wells Fargo) and Alliant Energy. As a private citizen, Ray became involved in national health care debates while serving on many commissions.

In the late 90s, Ray filled out a term as Mayor of Des Moines. Ray also chaired the Drake University Board of Trustees and, when a vacancy occurred, he was named President of Drake.

At the request of Governor Branstad, Ray chaired Iowa’s Sesquicentennial Commission, a colorful 150th anniversary celebration of Iowa becoming a state in 1846. That work led to a Ray inspired vision of enhanced civility through character and leadership resulting in Iowa’s CHARACTER COUNTS! initiative which is now located at The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake.

Ray was a trustee for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum and member of The Greater Des Moines Committee. He was a founding board member of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation and founding co-chairman of Keep Iowa Beautiful. Ray was a strong supporter of Easter Seals of Iowa and Camp Sunnyside including decades as a faithful participant in the annual Pony Express Ride.

In 2005, Ray became the only governor or former governor to receive Iowa’s highest honor, the Iowa Award, presented by Governor Vilsack and the Iowa Centennial Memorial Commission.

Ray was the first recipient of the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Star Award after having been named by the paper in 2000 as ‘The Most Influential Iowan of the 20th Century.’ He was inducted into the Iowa Insurance Hall of Fame, the Business Hall of Achievement, and Iowa Business Hall of Fame.

Ray’s first elected office was President of the 7th grade class at Callanan Middle School; a campaign managed by his life-long friend, Marvin Pomerantz. While at Drake, Ray was elected student President and was a member and President of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity that he long credited with cultivating his manners, character and civility.

Ray was a talented school-boy athlete with a passion for sports his entire life. Ray’s Drake Bulldogs were his favorite team though he cheered for all the schools in the state to be successful. Ray was an enthusiastic Iowa Hawkeye football and basketball fan as a result of being a color commentator for Iowa Hawkeye football games in the 1950s and 1960s with his radio business partner, Frosty Mitchell.

Ray developed a passion for the Drake Relays while running as an elementary student and only missed four Relays since that time. He later became an ardent tennis and ping-pong enthusiast. Ray also loved cars and was a frequent spectator at the Indy 500.

Ray was an accomplished photographer who loved taking pictures of people and sending them copies afterwards. Photographing his children and grandchildren gave him the greatest joy. And while Ray dined with Presidents and dignitaries from across the globe, some of his favorite meals were with his family at McDonalds. The Rays were world travelers with their favorite trips being with family in Colorado, on African safaris, London, the Eden Project in the U.K., Disney World, and a Disney Cruise.

Ray had a significant sweet tooth for ice cream and his special chocolate chip cookies. He also had an ice cream developed in his name by Anderson Erickson Dairy that was sold locally to benefit charitable causes.

Robert D. Ray is survived by his wife Billie; their three children, Randi (Bill) Watson; Lu Ann (Bill) Newland and Victoria (Mark) Carlson; and eight grandchildren, John and Michael Watson; Robert, Jeffrey and Billie Newland; Emma, Leah and Sadie Carlson.

Ray was preceded in death by his parents, Clark and Mildred Ray, and his sister, Novelene Gibbons.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be sent to The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University, 2702 Forest Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50311.

You may also leave your remembrance of Governor Ray on The Ray Center website.

“The happiest people I know are people
who are doing things for other people”
- Governor Robert D. Ray




Iowa State Capitol Rotunda
1007 East Grand Avenue
Des Moines , IA 50319
Thursday, July 12, 2018
5:30 PM - 8:30 PM
- Show more -
First Christian Church
2500 University Avenue
Des Moines, IA US 50310
Friday, July 13, 2018
1:00 PM


The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center
Collier-Scripps Hall 2702 Forest Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa USA 50311
The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center provides character and leadership development strategies to improve civility and develop ethical leaders throughout the world. Through public awareness and programming grounded in research, The Ray Center features two programs, CHARACTER COUNTS! and Excellence with Integrity. Our initiatives benefit people of all ages and are easily adaptable for families, schools, workplaces, and athletic teams and organizations. The Ray Center honors two of Drake’s most respected alumni—Robert D. and Billie Ray—whose humanitarian efforts, character and leadership set an inspirational example for multiple generations.