DES MOINES — Somber Iowans from varied walks of life, ethnicities and political backgrounds gathered Thursday for a common purpose in the Capitol rotunda — to honor the life of former Gov. Robert D. Ray, which touched people both locally and internationally as refugees sought help in war-torn places far away.
Ray, 89, served as Iowa’s 38th governor from January 1969 to January 1983 during a time that spanned the Vietnam War, American cultural change and significant policy and law changes that reshaped the state under the five terms he served as chief executive.
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 at the Statehouse. “He was an absolutely positive, energetic leader. It was my honor to serve on his staff.”
She was among scores of Iowans 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 by his side during a quiet ceremony where wreaths were placed by Ray’s grandchildren, resettled Southeast Iowa refugees and current Gov. Kim Reynolds before lines of Iowans passed by his casket to pay their final respects during a memorial observance.
The scene was a mixture of Iowans in black suits and dresses, Asian ceremonial garb and robes, and military personnel and 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 Ray family members and former aides, current elected officials, U.S. Ambassador to China and former Gov. Terry Branstad and his wife, former Gov. Chet Culver and his wife, former U.S. Rep. Neal Smith, and Iowa Supreme Court justices, among others.
Many posed for photos beside a life-size portrait of Ray that stood in the rotunda near where his casket was placed.
“He always valued everybody,” said Kim Poam Logan, a former executive director of the Iowa Asian Alliance, who led the delegation of six Iowans representing resettled refugees and their descendants during Thursday’s ceremony. “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 the refugees forced to flee their homelands in peril.
“He put Iowa center stage in international diplomacy about dealing with refugees — not just a participant, center stage,” said Quinn, who was among the hundreds of Iowans who gathered in the first-floor rotunda or ringed the second-floor balcony to view the brief ceremony before a three-hour procession.
“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, where Ray served 14 years as governor.
His funeral will be held at 1 p.m. Friday across from the Drake campus at First Christian Church — the same church where he met his wife and high school sweetheart, Billie.