Former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray died July 8, remembered for his civility, compassion and commitment to making decisions after listening to both sides of an issue. Our state, nation and world would benefit from following Ray’s example.
As the 38th governor of Iowa, Ray served five consecutive terms (1969-83), much of it during turbulent, chaotic times in our nation. He dealt with a rock festival, student unrest and a prison riot among other controversies during the height of the Vietnam War. In the late 1970s he opened Iowa’s doors to the re-settlement of refugees fleeing Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, helping them to relocate, find jobs and start new lives. A quote at the end of his obituary reads: “The happiest people I know are people who are doing things for other people.” Could this be an example of what Pope Francis calls the “Joy of the Gospel?”
Ray’s earlier experience as a trial lawyer impacted his decision making, according to his wife, Billie Ray. She once said: “If there ever was a situation where he had to make a decision, he always looked at both sides until he knew both sides well enough that he could make a very good decision that he felt was right for him” (Globe Gazette, Jan. 19, 2014).
We don’t have to be trial lawyers to practice decision making as Ray did. Good listening skills are a requirement. From that follows constructive dialogue. “If only there were more dialogue – true dialogue, that is – in families, the workplace, in politics, so many issues would be resolved,” Pope Francis said in an audience wCith volunteers for a national help hotline (Catholic News Service, March 17, 2017).
Constructive dialogue begins at home, in what our catechism refers to as the domestic church. That dialogue should continue for life. Sometimes families of origin become estranged because they’ve stopped talking and listening to one another. What we learn in the family we take with us into school, work place, parish and the public square.
Praying daily has an amazing impact on our ability for empathy and compassion, to relate to the other person we encounter in our daily lives or read about. Ray, for example, took the lead in reaching out to refugees displaced by the Vietnam War. In the late 1970s, he wrote a letter to governors across the nation, asking them to help the “boat people” fleeing oppressive regimes in their homelands in Southeast Asia. Some died in the attempt. Ray did what he asked others to do, successfully petitioning to bring several thousand refugees as a group to Iowa under the sponsorship of religious and humanitarian programs (Quad-City Times, July 9, 2018).
Prayer, good listening skills and constructive dialogue are helpful in overcoming zero tolerance for anything that doesn’t benefit us personally. But another ingredient is required: civility. Many tributes to Ray emphasize that quality. “… His civility, courage and common-sense governing set a high standard for those who followed,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a July 8 statement.
“He was a true gentleman and a role model of civility,” wrote Ambassador Terry Branstad, who served as Gov. Ray’s lieutenant governor and succeeded him as governor. “A global citizen and compassionate leader, he warmly welcomed refugees to Iowa at the conclusion of the Vietnam War and laid the groundwork for our Sister State in China. He treated everyone with respect and dignity, regardless of their stature in life.”
The value that Ray and his wife Billie placed on civility laid the foundation for the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University (his alma mater). According to its website, the center “provides character and leadership development strategies to improve civility and develop ethical leaders throughout the world.”
Ray was the exemplar of “Iowa Nice.” Let’s carry his legacy forward.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor