“Governor Robert D. Ray was one of those uniquely larger-than-life individuals. … (And) he was a man who had a profound commitment to serve others along with a guiding moral compass that was deeply rooted in his strong, yet quiet, Christian faith. Governor Ray rose from his modest roots to become a beloved governor and international humanitarian who inspired Iowa, and the world, to open their doors to unknown refugees — saving hundreds of thousands of lives along the way. He was a man who had a humble spirit and viewed his life purpose as the opportunity to serve others.”
~Scott Raecker, Executive Director of the Robert D. and Billie Ray Center, in “Hangin’ with Winners”
Good character is a value that’s developed and celebrated in Iowa. Founded in 1997 by longtime Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray, the CHARACTER COUNTS! program promotes six Pillars of Character: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship. CHARACTER COUNTS! believes that character is at the core of one’s life experience. Values like those reflected in the six pillars can guide good decision making and show the way to the best paths to take in life. In 2015, CHARACTER COUNTS! was transformed into The Robert D. and Billy Ray Center to extend its impact. Based at Drake University, it now serves as a global resource for the development of character, ethical leadership and civility.
Governor Ray was a special person. Throughout his life, he consistently exuded a quiet confidence and willingness to act in service to others, always doing so with the highest integrity and genuine humility. When Governor Ray passed away in July 2018, there was a consensus of opinion that his greatest singular achievement was the warm and ongoing welcome he gave to those seeking refuge, beginning with the Tai Dam refugees in 1974. Despite criticism from many corners, Governor Ray doubled down on his humanitarian instincts in 1977 when he led the efforts to relocate Vietnamese boat people in Iowa. He did so again in 1977 as the inspiration behind the Iowa SHARES program which raised $500,000 for refugee camps in Thailand (more than $2,000,000 in today’s dollars!). All of this prompted Kenneth Quinn of the World Food Prize Foundation to later refer to Iowa as the “humanitarian heartland of America.”
My first memorable interaction with Governor Ray occurred in 1982 at the summer convention held annually by the Iowa Broadcasters Association (IBA). He and local radio legend Forrest “Frosty” Mitchell were co-owners of several Iowa radio stations, including powerhouse WMT in Cedar Rapids. Governor Ray was inducted into the IBA Hall of Fame that year, an honor that would coincidently be bestowed upon me some 30 years later. The breadth and depth of our relationship changed after our company acquired WOI-TV in 1994, and our family moved from Sioux City to Des Moines. We became fellow members of The Breakfast Club, Ltd. resulting in our frequent attendance at its weekly breakfast meetings, and occasional social gatherings with our wives, Billie Ray and Susan Cole.
Governor and Billie Ray were active supporters of Variety – The Children’s Charity and served as honorary co-chairs of the 2002 Telethon. In part due to Governor Ray’s encouragement, Susan and I agreed to act in the same capacity for the 2012 Telethon. Similarly, I was spurred on by Governor Ray to serve as the Admiral of Easter Seals of Iowa’s 2013 Raft Regatta at Camp Sunnyside. He was a highly-visible supporter of Easter Seals and Camp Sunnyside where for decades Governor Ray was an active participant in their annual Pony Express Ride and “Honorary Admiral” of the annual Raft Regatta.
“Everyone can do something to make a difference in this world. We might not be able to do it all, but we can do something. And isn’t there great satisfaction in that?” Those words were spoken often by Governor Ray when talking about public or community service. He was also quick to perform a favor. During the course of my career, I’ve been involved in the sponsorship of more than a dozen presidential, U.S. Senate and House, gubernatorial or local government debates. I could always count on Governor Ray’s advice and counsel on how to best conduct these important political forums that are vital to our democracy. In one instance, the two campaigns were upset with each other and about to renege on their commitments until Governor Ray quietly intervened on my behalf.
If the warm Iowa welcome he gave to refugees was his singular greatest achievement, then Governor Ray’s most enduring legacy was the founding of the Institute for Character Development in 1997. He believed strongly that good character was something that could be developed and practiced in homes, schools, workplaces and communities across our state. The Ray Center also believes good character is something to be celebrated, and it does so at a pair of annual events where the Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award is presented. The Ray Exemplar Award is given out at the All-Star Evening in April of each year to an individual who consistently demonstrates good character as a visible role model. Similarly, the Ray Legacy Award is given out at the Iowa Character Awards each July to an individual with high character who also provides leadership and inspiration in pursuit of The Ray Center’s mission.
The Ray Center chose to posthumously honor Aplington-Parkersburg, IA’s legendary high school football coach, Ed Thomas, with the Pillar of Character Award at the All-Star Evening in April 2011. It had been my distinct privilege to nominate Coach Thomas’s family for the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage the summer before. Presented annually at the ESPYS (see their WINNER profile), the Ashe Award is given to individuals who “reflect the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and a willingness to stand up for one’s beliefs no matter what the cost.” The Thomas family was a most-deserving recipient. Scott Raecker, The Ray Center’s executive director, approached me about having a “special guest” from ESPN attend the All-Star Evening. Kenny Mayne was the perfect choice to participate in that night’s program. He had met Coach Thomas during a visit to Parkersburg in 2003 while on assignment for ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown. The resulting feature story profiled the school’s prolific football program that had produced four young men who were playing in the NFL at the time: Casey Wiegmann, Brad Meester, Jared DeVries and Aaron Kampmann. Kenny’s light-hearted approach to the story made the point that New York City would have about 150,000 players in the NFL on a comparative, per capita basis! Both the 2010 ESPYS video and Kenny’s 2003 story were given encore showings during the All-Star Evening program as part of the wonderful tribute to Coach Thomas.
The late General Norman Schwarzkopf once said, “Leadership is the potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.” All of the Ray Award honorees over the years have understood and embraced the importance of good character. It was an especially gratifying – and humbling – experience to join the honor roll of recipients after being presented a Governor Robert D. Ray Pillar of Character Award in July 2019.
CHARACTER COUNTS! and The Ray Center are WINNERS for all they do to lay a foundation for good character, ethical leadership and civility in homes, schools, workplaces, and communities across Iowa and around the world. Governor Ray would be proud of the continuing dedication and important work being done in his name.
“The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center – Drake University” Retrieved from www.drake.edu/raycenter
Munson, Kyle (November 5, 2014). “New Ray Center at Drake honors former governor” Retrieved from www.desmoinesregister.com
(July 7, 2018). “Robert D. Ray, longtime Iowa Governor, dies at 89” Retrieved from www.politico.com
(July 11, 2018). “UPDATE: Character Counts; Robert Ray had it” Retrieved from www.wcfcourier.com
(June 20, 2019). “The Ray Center at Drake University to acquire global license for CHARACTER COUNTS!” Retrieved from www.news.drake.edu
Updated October 30, 2022