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DES MOINES — Hundreds of somber Iowans from all walks of life gathered Thursday in the Capitol rotunda to honor the life of former Gov. Robert D. Ray.

Ray, 89, served as Iowa’s 38th governor from January 1969 to January 1983. His five terms in office spanned the Vietnam War, cultural upheavals and policy changes that reshaped the state.

He drew international acclaim by leading an effort to resettle refuges threatened by conflicts in Southeast Asia.

“He’s a giant whose footsteps loom large,” said Nancy Shimanek Boyd, who served in his administration during his fifth term. “He was an absolutely positive, energetic leader. It was my honor to serve on his staff.”

She was among the crowd who stood in silence — broken only by the soft strains of a lone harp player — as Ray’s American flag-draped casket was moved into the rotunda by a military honor guard to lie in state at the Capitol.

His wife, Billie, paused for a moment during a quiet ceremony where wreaths were placed by Ray’s grandchildren, refugees and current Gov. Kim Reynolds. Lines of Iowans passed by his casket to pay their final respects.

The scene was a mixture of black suits and dresses, Asian ceremonial garb and military uniforms. Politicians of all stripes assembled to honor a man who impacted their lives in both small and big ways.

Kiosks were set up inside the Capitol for Iowans to leave messages to the Ray family.

The crowd included former aides, former Gov. Chet Culver and his wife, U.S. Ambassador to China and former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and his wife, former U.S. Rep. Neal Smith, and Iowa Supreme Court justices, among others. Branstad served as Ray’s lieutenant governor.

Many posed for photos beside a life-size portrait of Ray that stood near his casket.

“He always valued everybody,” said Kim Poam Logan, a former executive director of the Iowa Asian Alliance. She led a delegation representing refugees and their descendants. “He saw people for people — beyond the politics and beyond the ideology. He was a very grounded person, and he always had a twinkle in his eyes, and he just had a way of connecting with people. He had a very service-oriented heart,” she added.

Ken Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador, Ray aide and current head of the World Food Prize organization, credited Ray with elevating Iowa’s stature on the international stage by being the first elected official to welcome refugees forced to flee their homelands.

“He put Iowa center stage in international diplomacy about dealing with refugees — not just a participant, center stage,” said Quinn.

“There’s an outpouring of respect, affection and love for the governor and remembering the civility of those years,” Quinn said. “I think people are yearning for that.”

Ray’s casket was transported to the Capitol in a motorcade that passed Terrace Hill, the governor’s mansion that was restored and first occupied by the Ray family; Roosevelt High School and Drake University, where the Rays graduated and he served for a year as interim president; the Des Moines City Hall where Ray served as interim mayor; and finally arriving at the Statehouse.

His funeral will be held at 1 p.m. today across from the Drake campus at First Christian Church — the same church where he met his wife and high school sweetheart, Billie.


Statehouse reporter for The Courier

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