A Governor For All Seasons


I have read books on leadership, have participated in a mentor/leadership class, and have been interested in the evolving nature of leadership.

In my own opinion, what we view as leadership today need to be revamped. A large number of elected officials and those who aspire to run for public office have become obsessed with being a “celebrity” first, public servant second, or third, or fourth, depending on what they feel is a bigger priority.

These days, leadership is not about analyzing and understanding all angles of an issue or topic.  It’s all about who shouts the loudest, and gets the biggest attention. Regardless of political affiliation, there are some good leaders and there are some bad leaders, and there are a certain group of leaders that will make anyone stop and go “That is one hell of a leader.”

Robert D. Ray served as Iowa’s popular governor from 1969 through 1983.

Robert D. Ray was one of those individuals in the latter group.  A last of the breed of leaders who didn’t let politics, ego, agenda, or personal preferences get in the way of serving the public and evolving with the times.  Ray, who passed away on Sunday at age 89, served as Iowa’s 38th governor from 1969 to 1983.

One book I’ve read currently was “Leading Quietly” by Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. Leading quietly in a noisy world is a tough job. Bob Ray was a quiet leader and an introvert that (surprise!) “did his job”  without pretense.  Ray listened, looked at  situations from all angles, and then brought in key players to come up with a decision or resolution. Ray was successful because he surrounded himself with a staff and individuals who were well-versed in areas that Ray struggled in.

How many lawmakers do you know would have a weekly meeting with the opposing party?  Ray, as a Republican, did that with the Democrats during his 14 years as governor.

I have yet to hear any Democrats or Republicans doing that today.

How many leaders would say “That’s a good idea” to something that is opposite of what her or his political base believed in?  Ray did that. No one else on both sides of the aisle have been willing to do that, no thanks to our obsession to partisanship.

The point I’m making is this: you have to reach out, even to those who may disagree with you. You may never know if someone thinks that your idea is a good idea. Most people today have way too much ego and pride not to swallow it when they agree with something that is not well received within your own base or “tribe”. We are too scared to speak up, for fear of being ostracized by the groups, parties, or bases that support us.

Governor Ray had little time to bunker up and hunker down with stalling on legislation and playing games. He had a job to do: run the daily operations of the state and provide the best service to the citizens through transparency and accountability.

His first term was rocky. Many felt that he was a genial man, but not a strong leader. As time move forward, Ray gained more confidence as governor.

Beyond opening the doors for the Tai Dam community to come to Iowa after the end of the Vietnam War, the bottle bill, and how he handled and allowed the Wadena rock festival to take place in 1970, did you know about the various changes and creations that was done under Governor Ray’s tenure? (courtesy of KCCI-TV)

  • Reformed Iowa’s tax code.
  • Changed the way K-12 education was paid for, having the state pick up a larger portion of the tab.- Made food and prescriptions nontaxable.
  • Created the Iowa Department of Transportation, which became a model for other states.
  • Created the first Energy Policy Council in response to the energy crisis of the 1970s.
  • Gave rise to the Commission of the Status of Women.-
  • Created the Iowa Ombudsman’s Office, where people could turn to if they had problems with state government.
  • Helped form Iowa Public Television.
  • Helped form the Iowa community college system by expanding on the accomplishments of his predecessors.
  • In 1972, he grounded 95 planes and 1,625 vehicles assigned to the Iowa Air and Army National guards until the federal government paid for the damages sustained after two military plane crashed and destroyed the homes of two Iowa farmers.
  • Was approached several times to be either a Vice President or a Cabinet member. He turned those opportunities down. He was a low-key guy, who never wanted the limelight.

Ray’s approach was simple.

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,” Ray told The Associated Press 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.” 

Excerpt from Politico, July 8, 2018

Most millennials and Gen Xers would do a double take and say “There’s no way in hell a Republican would do all of this?” Bob Ray did. You know why?  Ray understood that Iowa had to evolve and get up to speed with the modern era.

Harold Hughes served as Governor and U.S. Senator. A recovering alcoholic, he left politics to go into religion and helping those who were recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. 

His predecessor, Harold Hughes, had the same view as well about pulling Iowa forward into the modern age. Hughes, a Democrat, and Ray, a Republican, ushered in a new era for Iowa for which it has been unmatched to this very day.  Hughes was instrumental in one of the most controversial topics in Iowa at that time: the “liquor by the drink” battle.

Ray would have not been elected governor in 1968, had he not survived a plane crash near Mason City while campaigning during the primaries. At that time, Ray was in third place in the primary. His campaign received a huge boost when Des Moines radio deejay Frosty Mitchell joined the campaign and singer Marilyn Maye, a Des Moines native, changed a few lyrics to the song “Step to the Rear” and it became “Let the Leader Lead the Way” a staple of the Ray campaigns.

As he served as governor, Ray reorganized several departments, created the Iowa Department of Transportation, and was accessible to everyone: lawmakers, media, citizens, visitors. During his final week as governor, the media threw a party for him in the press conference room. The media lauded and criticized him during his tenure, but he showed no hostility towards them. They had a job to do, much like he did.

During his fifth term, Ray knew the landscape was changing. The economy was down, the farm crisis was looming, and making painful budget cuts were among other things he had to deal with.  There were strong speculation that Ray would seek a sixth term in 1982. A “Ray watch” percolated, to which the Des Moines Register was convinced in December 1981 that Ray will run again.

Ray, Robert D.
Governor Bob Ray (left) announcing his intention not to seek a sixth term as governor at a press conference in Des Moines. Listening to the governor are from left: his wife Billie, and daughters Vicki and LuAnn. February 18, 1982.

Four days after Valentine’s Day, February 18, 1982, Governor Ray dropped a bombshell during his weekly press conference.  Flanked by his wife Billie and their daughters, Ray calmly said he will not run for a sixth term.

That sent the political world into a tizzy. State and national GOP leaders pleaded with him to run again. Democrats were floored. Everyone assumed that Ray would run again.

Except for Bob and Billie.  They knew it was time to move on. It was time. He never got the chance to know his neighbors, his time was consumed by the job, and he wanted to start a new career.

“In many respects the governor’s job is a lonely job. Most of the time you’re with people, you’re at events, you have a schedule that’s full, and people wonder why anyone could be that lonely. But it does get lonely. You don’t spend time with good friends, you don’t go out for dinner, you don’t go to movies, you don’t do the things that you would do normally in life, cultivate friends.”

-Bob Ray, from “Governor: An Oral Biography of Robert D. Ray” by Jon Bowermaster

After leaving office in January 1983, Ray left to become President and CEO of Life Investors (now AGEON USA). The Rays moved back to Des Moines where he assumed a similar position with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Iowa (now Wellmark). He served in other positions in Des Moines, notably completing the term as Mayor of Des Moines after the death of Arthur Blank, interim President of Drake University his alma mater, and served of many boards.

Bob Ray owned or co-owned several radio stations. One of them included WMT-AM in Cedar Rapids, one of the legendary stations in Iowa. Mitchell got Ray, who was then a trial lawyer in Des Moines, to be his color analyst for Iowa football games on radio for several years in the 50’s and 60’s.

Governor Ray on the phone in 1979. (Des Moines Register)

He picked up photography and publish a book. There are two books, one about his career, and his efforts to bring the Vietnamese community to Iowa, where other states, Democrats and Republicans, were hesitant to do it. Sometimes, when you are a person with thoughtful convictions, you are mostly alone in that journey.

He preferred McDonald’s to a fancy upscale restaurant. I would stop at the Grand Avenue McDonald’s for breakfast various times. His wife Billie and him would sit by themselves, or have their kids and grandchildren with them.  Occasionally, someone would stop by and say hello to the Rays.

Running for public office and being elected to serve is a lonely job as Ray noted. There are a few people I know who aspire to run for public office. It may be exciting, but it does come at a cost. You’re so busy with committee meetings, debates, passing bills, running a department, and on and on. You are expected to be in the limelight, answering tough questions, answering to constituents and fellow lawmakers.

You don’t have a life to go home to. You lose touch with friends, neighbors move and new ones move in. Personally, that is what keeps me from politics.  The constant grind, the shouting, the egos, the lack of sensibility these days. I’m not wired for a political life. Similar to Ray, I am a quiet person who prefers to process information, analyze it, and bring stakeholders together to find a solution.

Some will say that politics is not for quiet leaders.  Bob Ray proved that to be false, but in the long run, you have to know when it is time to walk away and reclaim your life. Politics can chew you up and spit you out. Anyone can love politics…but politics does not love anyone back. 

Bob Ray, at his inauguration in 1969. 

The usual crying call of “we need leaders like (fill in the name) again” quickly filled the airspace after Ray’s death. Sadly, those calls will go away until Election Day, come right back up, and then go away again.

Truth to be told, there will never be another Harold Hughes or a Bob Ray to grace our presence again.


Their leadership and humility doesn’t fit into the puzzle of today’s fractious world. The recent news of public officials calling citizens to harass other public officials, constant backlash via social media, and the public discontent leads to a probable conclusion:  maybe it isn’t really the politicians that have caused most of this mess.

Maybe it’s us, citizens, who need to do a smarter job of electing better candidates who are willing to serve…and not be mesmerized by wannabe political celebrities trying to climb up the career ladder.  We, the citizens, have become more partisan and dismissive of different views. We prefer to cast off those who may slightly disagree with us than ask “how do you see this issue?” and understand their views.

The view of the citizens are reflected in the views of the elected officials we put into office. George Carlin bluntly put it this way about the public and how we behave with regards to politics in this clip.

I will offer one advice for aspiring leaders, whether in business, politics, or where ever you are at:  “The toes you step on while climbing the corporate or political ladder may be attached to the ass you’ll have to kiss on the way down.”

Be humble, be respectful, don’t talk and listen, understand the topics from all sides, and have key people around you to make decisions.  And, don’t burn your bridges. You may them before they need you. That is what a leader does.


It was once said that people didn’t ask “who is the Governor of this state?” They would ask “Who is the ‘GovernorRay’ of this state?”

That said a lot about Governor Ray to a generation of Iowans.

In conclusion, the legacy and the life of Bob Ray is multi-fold and vast. It wasn’t always sunshine and flowers as we are prone to paint the narrative.  There was struggles and achievements, situations that were sticky, unpopular decisions, and butting heads with lawmakers and department heads.

Robert D. Ray was a quiet leader who navigated and guided Iowa through an important chapter in the state’s history. An individual who was revered and admired for his leadership, civility, and humility. A governor who wanted his citizens to be proud to be from Iowa, not be embarrassed about being from a place where agriculture and large urban areas can exist.

A decent man who was open to everyone and everything that interested him.

A Governor For All Seasons.