The Ray Center honors two of Drake University’s most respected alumni—Robert D. and Billie Ray—whose humanitarian efforts, character, and leadership set an inspirational example for generations.
Ray grew up in Des Moines, IA. He met his future wife, Billie Lee Hornberger, while they were students at Roosevelt High School. The high school sweethearts started dating in 1945 and were married on December 22, 1951. His life revolved around his love of family. He was a devoted husband, dedicated father to three daughters, and adoring grandfather to eight grandchildren.
After World War II, Ray served in the U. S. Army in Japan. He graduated from Drake University with a business degree in 1952 and a law degree in 1954. Later, he built a successful practice as a trial lawyer.
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.
As governor, Iowa expanded education funding, created a merged DOT, and eliminated sales tax on food and drugs. 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.
Governor Ray established the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women and issued Executive Orders advancing civil rights.
During his tenure, Ray chaired the National Governors’ Association, Republican Governors’ Association, Midwest Governors’ Association, the Education Commission of the States, and served as president of the Council of State Governments. Time magazine named Ray as one of America’s Rising Young Leaders in 1974.
In the late 1970’s Ray became a worldwide leader in the resettlement of refugees from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. His support was key in helping them relocate, find jobs, and start new lives in Iowa.
In 1979, he was a member of the U.S. delegation to the Special United Nations Conference of Refugees. He later served as a U.S. Representative to the United Nations.
After leaving office, Rays became President and CEO of Life Investors, 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 a 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 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 a project of The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake.
Ray was a trustee for the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum and a 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 supported the Easter Seals of Iowa and Camp Sunnyside. He was faithful participant in their 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.
The Des Moines Register named Ray as ‘The Most Influential Iowan of the 20th Century’ in 2000. He was then the first recipient of the Register’s Iowa Star Award. He was inducted into the Iowa Insurance Hall of Fame, the Business Hall of Achievement, and the 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. He was a member and president of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity that he credited with cultivating his manners, character, and civility.
The Drake University Bulldogs were Ray’s favorite team, though he cheered for all. He enjoyed serving as a color commentator for Iowa Hawkeye football games in the 1950s and 1960s.
Ray developed a passion for the Drake Relays while running as an elementary student and only missed four Relays. 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 and loved taking pictures of people and sending them copies afterward. Photographing his children and grandchildren gave him the greatest joy. And while Ray dined with dignitaries from across the globe, some of his favorite meals were with his family at McDonalds. The Rays were world travelers and their favorite trips were to Colorado, London, Africa, Disney World, a Disney Cruise, and the Eden Project in the U.K.
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.
Governor Robert D. Ray passed away in 2018.
As First Lady of Iowa, Mrs. Ray was a bridge builder who always extended the very best of Iowa to Iowans and guests from around world. She was actively supportive and engaged in the efforts to launch our work.
With her experience in education and passion for shaping the lives of young students, Mrs. Ray continues to provide advice, insights, and strong encouragement to help The Ray Center transform lives and strengthen communities.