Dixy Lee Ray

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Dixy Lee Ray
Dixy Lee Ray.jpg
17th Governor of Washington
In office
January 12, 1977 – January 14, 1981
Lieutenant John Cherberg
Preceded by Daniel J. Evans
Succeeded by John Spellman
Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
In office
January 19, 1975 – June 20, 1975
President Gerald Ford
Preceded by Office established
Succeeded by Frederick Irving
Personal details
Born Marguerite Ray
(1914-09-03)September 3, 1914
Tacoma, Washington
United States
Died January 2, 1994(1994-01-02) (aged 79)
Fox Island, Washington
United States
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Never married
Profession Marine biologist

Dixy Lee Ray (September 3, 1914 – January 2, 1994) was the 17th Governor of the U.S. State of Washington. Variously described as idiosyncratic, eccentric, and "ridiculously smart," she was the state's first female governor and was known for her leadership of the state during the devastating eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and for her strident support of atomic energy.

Early life[edit]

She was born Marguerite Ray in Tacoma, Washington to Frances Adams Ray and Alvis Marion Ray, the second in a family of five girls. In 1930 she legally changed her name to "Dixy Lee" in homage to Robert E. Lee. [1]

Ray attended Tacoma's Stadium High School, graduated as valedictorian from Mills College in Oakland, California in 1937 and earned a master's degree in 1938. Her thesis was titled A Comparative Study of the Life Habits of Some Species of Burrowing Eumalacostraca. She went on to receive a Ph.D. from Stanford University. Her doctoral dissertation was the peripheral nervous system of Lampanyctus leucopsarus, which she researched in 1945 at the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California.[2]



Ray lectured in marine biology at the University of Washington from 1947 until 1972. In 1952 she received a prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship grant for Biology.[3] In 1963, Ray became the director of Seattle's Pacific Science Center, a position she held through 1972. To help promote the center, she began hosting a weekly science television show, "Animals of the Sea," on KCTS-TV. Her expert management of the center and popular television program earned acclaim and brought her into the public eye. During this time she met Senator Warren Magnuson, a later patron of her endeavors.


Ray speaking with Robert Sachs, director of the Argonne National Laboratry, circa 1974.

Atomic Energy Commission[edit]

An advocate of nuclear power, in 1973 Ray was appointed by Richard Nixon to chair the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) on the recommendation of Senator Magnuson. The offer of appointment came via a telephone call after she was paged in an airport and, though she was initially reluctant to accept the position, relented after being persuaded by her longtime friend Lou Guzzo.[4]

Following her appointment to the commission, news of her personal eccentricities began to emerge. She lived out of a 28-foot motor home, which was parked on a lot in rural Virginia; each morning she would be chauffeured to the AEC offices in Germantown, Maryland, accompanied by a 100-pound Scottish deerhound named Ghilllie, and a miniature poodle named Jacques. Media reports commented on her unusual hosiery (white knee socks).[1]

U.S. State Department[edit]

In 1975, Ray was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs by Gerald Ford, but resigned six months later, complaining about lack of input into department decision making. She subsequently told a United States Senate committee that she "saw Secretary of State Henry Kissinger only once -- the day she was sworn in as an assistant secretary of state."[1] In a parting shot as she left D.C., Ray declared that "anything the private sector can do, the government can do it worse."[4]

Governor of Washington[edit]

To the surprise of many, Dixy Lee Ray announced in 1979 she would seek election as Governor of Washington. Though previously politically unaffiliated, she declared herself a Democrat.[1]

Ray displayed a blunt, sometimes confrontational, style on the campaign trail, for which she would later become known. During a visit with the Dorian Society, a Seattle gay rights group, she was asked by one member, "as a person who has worked in the federal government for several years, you must know some gay people in high federal positions - what is it like for them?" Ray responded, "I don't know any - you can't tell by looking at them," drawing applause from attendees.[5] In another instance, she declared Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Shelby Scates, who had deluged her with tough questions on the campaign trail, would "learn what the words persona non grata really mean" after her election.[4]

Ray narrowly won the Democratic nomination over Seattle mayor Wes Uhlman, having spent almost no money on her campaign, having no experience in running for elected office, and having little support from the state's political class.[4] Despite opposition from all major newspapers and predictions from pundits that the state was not ready "for an unmarried woman who gave herself a chainsaw for Christmas," Ray went on to win the general election with a victory over King County Executive John D. Spellman.[6]

After assuming office, Ray quickly alienated fellow Democrats with her conservative views on energy and the environment. She approved allowing supertankers to dock in Puget Sound, championed support for unrestrained growth and development, and continued to express enthusiasm for atomic power.[1] She, likewise, alienated the state's Republican establishment after she fired all the appointees of her predecessor, three-term governor Daniel J. Evans.[6]

Ray speaking with Argonne National Laboratory director Robert Sachs, c. 1974.

Ray tightened state purse strings and began an audit of state salaries and programs. She balanced the state budget and during her tenure as Governor oversaw the state's first full funding for basic education. As the first resident of the Governor's Mansion without a First Lady, Ray hired her elder sister Marion R. Reid to serve as her official hostess.[1]

The media and political opposition she'd earlier experienced, however, continued to solidify in the face of her unyielding style of governance. In a critical 1977 article in Mother Jones, in which he labeled Ray as a "slightly wacky Miss Marple," Ray Mungo described the increasingly madcap atmosphere in Washington:

Ralph Nader, during a visit to the state, called Ray's administration "gubernatorial lunacy."[4]

On April 3, 1980 Ray declared a state of emergency as a result of the worsening threat of volcanic eruption posed by Mount St. Helens. Warning that "the possibility of a major eruption or mudflow is real," she urged a sometimes skeptical public to remain away from the landmark mountain.[7]

The emergency decree was followed, on April 30, by the declaration of a "red zone" in southwestern Washington where public access would be prohibited. Ray ordered the mobilization of the Washington National Guard and the deployment of the Washington State Patrol to reinforce the sheriffs of Cowlitz County and Skamania County in establishing and enforcing the quarantine decree, violation of which carried a penalty of six months imprisonment. (The "red zone" restrictions would later be credited by the U.S. Forest Service with saving between 5,000 to 30,000 people from certain death.[8])

Still, as a scientist, Ray was fascinated by the possibility of an eruption. In the weeks leading up to the fateful event, Ray flew to the mountain in the governor's plane, circling the peak and remarking, "I've always said I wanted to live long enough to see one of our volcanoes erupt." [9] The cataclysmic eruption of the mountain, which occurred on May 18, 1980, killed 57 people. The following day Ray suspended local elections, which had been scheduled for May 20, due to the thickening ash cloud that was rapidly descending over the state.[10] After touring the scene of the devastation by helicopter, she remarked, "I feel like I've just come back from the moon." [11]

Ray ran for reelection in 1980, enlisting Republican consultant Montgomery Johnson to head her campaign. She lost in the Democratic primary election to then-State Senator Jim McDermott, who went on to lose in the general election to moderate Republican John D. Spellman. Ray left the governor's office in January 1981.

Death and legacy[edit]

After leaving office, Ray retired to her home on Fox Island to care for her dogs. She was frequently in the news giving her opinion of current events. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted her as saying she favored "abolishing political parties and taking away voting rights from anyone who fails to vote in two consecutive elections."[1] During her retirement she co-authored two books critical of the environmentalist movement with Lou Guzzo. In one of those books, Trashing the Planet, she claimed that Rachel Carson was to blame for global malarial deaths as a result of her opposition to DDT.

Dixy Lee Ray died on January 2, 1994 at her home.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) established an award in Dixy Lee Ray's honor for engineering contributions to the field of environmental protection in 1998. The award, which consists of a bronze medal with the governor's likeness and a cash grant, was first given to Clyde W. Frank in 1999 and has been made annually since.[12]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Becker, Paula (2004). "Ray, Dixy Lee (1914-1994)". historylink.org. HistoryInk. Retrieved 21 September 2014. 
  2. ^ reference
  3. ^ Guggenheim reference
  4. ^ a b c d e Mungo, Raymond (May 1977). "Dixie Lee Ray - How Madame Nuke Took Over Washington". Mother Jones. 
  5. ^ Atkins, Gary (2003). Gay Seattle: Stories of Exile and Belonging. University of Washington Press. p. 213. ISBN 0295982985. 
  6. ^ a b Governing Codes: Gender, Metaphor, and Political Identity. Lexington Books. p. 31. ISBN 073911199X. 
  7. ^ "Mount St. Helens Tremors Prompt State of Emergency". Boca Raton News (Boca Raton, Florida). 4 April 1980. 
  8. ^ Thomas Frederick Saarinen, James L. Sell. Warning and response to the Mount St. Helens eruption. p. 72. 
  9. ^ Thompson, Dick (2002). Volcano Cowboys: The Rocky Evolution of a Dangerous Science. St. Martin's Griffin. p. 48. ISBN 0312286686. 
  10. ^ "EXECUTIVE ORDER 80-07". governor.wa.gov. State of Washington, Office of the Governor. 1980. Retrieved 21 September 2014. 
  11. ^ Lange, George (2003). [Mount St. Helens erupts on May 18, 1980 "Mount St. Helens erupts on May 18, 1980"] Check |url= scheme (help). historylink.org. HistoryInk. Retrieved 21 September 2014. 
  12. ^ ASME reference

Further reading[edit]

  • Ware, Susan; Lorraine Braukman; Stacy Braukman (2004). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University Press. pp. 538–539. ISBN 0-674-01488-X. 
  • Grinstein, Louise S; Carol A. Biermann; Rose K. Rose (1997). Women in the Biological Sciences: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook. Greenwood Publishing Group,. pp. 424–432. ISBN 0-313-29180-2. 
  • Ray, Dixy Lee; Louis R. Guzzo (1994). Environmental Overkill. New York: Harper Perennial. pp. 260 pages. ISBN 0-06-097598-9. 
  • Ray, Dixy Lee; Louis R. Guzzo (1992). Trashing the Planet: How Science Can Help Us Deal With Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things). New York: Harper Perennial. pp. 206 pages. ISBN 0-06-097490-7. 
  • Ray, Dixy Lee (1973). The Nation's Energy Future: A Report to Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off.). pp. 175 pages. 
  • Ray, Dixy Lee (1959). Marine Boring and Fouling Organisms. Seattle WA: University of Washington Press. 
  • Ray, Dixy Lee (1950). "The peripheral nervous system of lampanyctus leucopsarus". Journal of Morphology 87 (1) (Wiley Interscience). pp. 61–178. doi:10.1002/jmor.1050870104. 
  • Ray, Dixy Lee (1945). The peripheral nervous system of lampanyctus leucopsarus. Pacific Grove, CA: Hopkins Marine Station. pp. 360 pages. 
  • Ray, Dixy Lee (1938). A Comparative Study of the Life Habits of Some Species of Burrowing Eumalacostraca. Oakland CA: Mills College. pp. 24 pages. 

External links[edit]

Government offices
Preceded by
James R. Schlesinger
Chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission
Succeeded by
Commission abolished
Preceded by
New Office
Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
January 19, 1975 – June 20, 1975
Succeeded by
Frederick Irving
Political offices
Preceded by
Daniel J. Evans
Governors of Washington
January 12, 1977 – January 14, 1981
Succeeded by
John Spellman