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Monday, January 3, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Dixy Lee Ray: Unpolitical, Unique, Uncompromising

Seattle Times Staff: Seattle Times News Services

Contrarian to the end, Dixy Lee Ray was not quite like anybody who preceded her to the governor's mansion in Olympia, and certainly unlike anyone who's lived there since.

Teacher, scientist, unabashed nuclear-power booster and this state's only woman governor, Ray was more than another political outsider in 1976, the post-Watergate election year in which she swept to victory. She was an anti-politician: a sometimes gruff, always uncompromising, tell-it-like-it-is hurricane of a woman whose candor and directness were responsible probably both for her rise in politics and her fall.

Ray died yesterday at her home on Fox Island, in Puget Sound west of Tacoma. She was 79.

Lou Guzzo, the television commentator and longtime friend who originally talked her into running for governor, said Ray had suffered for months from a severe bronchial condition that worsened in recent weeks. He said she had difficulty breathing and lost energy at the end, dying of viral pneumonia.

"She was the most courageous person I have ever known, unconquerable, a remarkable woman," Guzzo said.

Her illness didn't diminish her characteristic - often provocative - frankness.

As recently as Thursday Ray was in the news, dismissing media reports about past federal radiation experiments as alarmist and criticizing Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.

"Everybody is exposed to radiation," she told the Associated Press. "A little bit more or a little bit less is of no consequence."

Her Republican opponent in 1976, John Spellman, recalled yesterday that the public responded to Ray's bluntness, her passion and a winning speaking style honed as a college lecturer.

"Dixy bubbled. And that was infectious," Spellman said.

Gov. Mike Lowry said he was "surprised and saddened to hear of her death, and on behalf of the people of the state of Washington, I want to thank her for her service to our state."

When she outpolled Spellman by 130,000 votes in 1976, many saw Ray as the forerunner of a new breed of politician, the scientist-manager who knew, and cared, nothing about politics. But she would be a one-term governor for all her academic honors and degrees, which included a doctorate in biological science from Stanford University and 20 honorary doctorates.

Always quotable, she nevertheless had legendarily poor relations with the Capitol press corps. She once named the pigs on her Fox Island farm for the reporters who displeased her.

She feuded with Democratic party leaders and legislators, too. Olympia veterans said she couldn't get any bills passed because she didn't know how to compromise. And when she tried, she did so clumsily. Democratic leaders, especially Sen. Warren Magnuson, were aghast when it was reported that Ray had offered a Senate appointment - to Magnuson's seat, upon his death - to at least one legislator she hoped would help push her agenda.

Fellow Democrats Gordon Walgren and John Bagnariol, the powerful lawmakers who were indicted in the anti-gambling sting called Gamscam, blamed Ray in part for their troubles, saying she was only too willing to cooperate with the FBI in their demise.

When Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, some lawmakers and local politicians criticized Ray for the state government's lack of preparedness and for giving local officials short shrift in the weeks following the disaster.

By the end of her term she was without many strong supporters in either the media or in Olympia. Perhaps taking all this in, the public grew tired, too, of schoolmarmish lectures delivered whenever she was questioned about atomic energy or environmental concerns.

When she ran for re-election that fall, she failed to survive the primary, losing to Democrat Jim McDermott, who then lost a close race to Spellman for the governorship.

Successes in other fields

Outside politics, Ray's record was a stunning string of successes.

She taught zoology at the University of Washington, directed the Pacific Science Center and was chairwoman of the federal Atomic Energy Commission. The latter position made her the most powerful woman in the Nixon administration.

When the AEC was abolished, Ray became assistant secretary of state for oceans, international environment and scientific matters. She resigned soon after being confirmed.

After leaving the governor's mansion, she retired to her farm on Fox Island. There, she grew vegetables, fruits and berries, raised chickens, wrote and carved wood in the style of the North Coast Indians.

Ray, who had carved her first totem pole as a Girl Scout in Tacoma, made an intensive study of mythology and Indian culture before embarking on a series of woodcarvings that were praised by artists and Native Americans. They commanded high prices in the marketplace.

The chiefs of the Kwakiutl Nations conferred upon Ray the Indian name of Umah, "respected lady of nobility."

A life of gusto and dogs

She had an exuberant, live-life-to-the-hilt side to her personality.

On election night, she plopped into the governor's chair, kicked her feet up and hoisted a glass of champagne. "How sweet it is!" she boomed.

She was widely known in Seattle, even before her foray into politics, as the director of the Pacific Science Center and host of a popular television science show in which she introduced kids to the sea life below Puget Sound.

She used to drive around Seattle in a Jaguar, with her wolfhound hanging out of the passenger window. Her dogs, in fact, were always with her. In the nation's capital, as AEC chairwoman, she lived in a motor home and took her dogs to work.

In Olympia, lawmakers said the pooches were always present, either in her office or under the table during working lunches at the mansion.

State Patrol officers took them for walks and were ordered to clean up after them. U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks says she once brought her dogs to the posh Rainier Club.

Duane Berentson, the former Republican House Speaker, recalls the dogs were always in Ray's office when lawmakers came for meetings. "In Dixy's eyes, the dogs were certainly at least as important as us."

Said former Sen. Hubert Donohue, an Eastern Washington Democrat, "I always felt if the dogs didn't growl at me, I was doing OK."

Ray chose her own name

Guzzo, her biographer and chief counselor as governor, told the AP that Ray's hardscrabble background, including the long shadow of a raging, manipulative, alcoholic father, explains a lot about her drive to succeed, her grit and her unwillingness to compromise.

Born Sept. 3, 1914, and reared in a poor printer's family in a blue-collar neighborhood of Tacoma, she assumed the role that Guzzo called "assistant father" to four sisters.

"Dad was one of those men who wanted desperately to have a son, and I was the best he could come up with," Ray said in Guzzo's book, "Is It True What They Say About Dixy?"

"For many years, he treated me as if I were a son, sometimes, not always . . . because I was really a disappointment to him. Not in my whole life can I recall even the faintest stirring of affection for him."

Dixy was christened Margaret, but never used that name. Her family called her "that little dickens," soon shortened to "Dick." She used that nickname through grade school, but in sixth grade renamed herself for her favorite region, discarding the spelling "Dixie" as too sissified. The "Lee" is for the Confederate general, a distant relative. She legally changed her name at age 16.

Her family bought 65 acres of cheap land on Fox Island near Tacoma in her teens. It is there that she developed her fascination for what she called "unpleasant, creepy, crawly things" and decided on a career in marine biology and zoology.

She climbed Mount Rainier at age 12, making her the youngest girl up to that time to accomplish the feat. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees at Mills College in California, along with a Phi Beta Kappa key for outstanding scholarship, she taught for several years in California schools before enrolling in Stanford to earn her doctorate.

She joined the University of Washington faculty in the zoology department in 1945 and continued there, with several extended leaves of absence, until she ran for governor in 1976. She was an associate professor when she left the university.

While on the faculty, Ray became a renowned expert on the sea, serving on prestigious national committees and representing this country on international committees. She was chief scientist on a Stanford University-sponsored international expedition in the Indian Ocean.

Shortly after the end of the 1962 World's Fair, Ray was named director of the Pacific Science Center. She served for nine years, leaving to spend three years on the Atomic Energy Commission.

Ray received scores of awards. Among them: The Seattle Propeller Club's Maritime Man of the Year, Seattle Board of Realtors "First Citizen," National Campfire Girls Woman of the Year, Harper's Bazaar Top Ten Most Influential Women in the Nation, State of Israel Bond Organization Man of the Year, Freedom Foundation Medal, American Academy of Achievement Gold Plate, Women of Achievement in Energy, Washington State Legislature's Susan B. Anthony Award and Outstanding Woman in Energy.

She was one of the 100 distinguished Washington citizens - past and present - selected to an honor roll by a panel to commemorate this state's centennial in 1989. That same year, Washington Women Judges awarded her a silver cup.

A tough, puzzling governor

But as a governor, she was always a puzzle.

The state had never seen anyone quite like her - preaching laissez faire free enterprise on the one hand, wearing the label of Democrat on the other; reaching out for the support of labor one day, and accepting large contributions from big-business backers the next.

She was tough, offering to "send a Kleenex" to "crybaby" employees she summarily fired when she took office. Although she had preached against old-time politics, she named cronies and campaign contributors to head up state agencies and she didn't miss a perk available to her, including having State Patrol airplanes at her bidding almost constantly.

When a prominent Republican legislator asked a question on behalf of a constituent, she responded: "You can tell your constituent to go to hell."

If the environmentalists expected an ally in the scientist governor, they were mistaken.

She accused President Carter of being "frightened in his mother's womb" for dragging his feet on a plutonium nuclear-reactor plant at Clinch River, Tenn., and she called this state's senior senator, Warren Magnuson, a "dictator" for his concerns about Cherry Point as an oil-port site.

Of an oil spill, she said: "Clearly its major effect is on birds. . . and that is not happy. I hate to say this, but birds die every day. In every major oil spill, marine life has recovered in a year."

Those who feared an atomic disaster were dismissed as foolish worriers. "There is no evidence that survivors of the Hiroshima bombings have suffered any more cancer than anyone else, including the second generation," she said. "The problems facing the nuclear industry are largely raised by fears of the public, but we all know that fear requires ignorance."

In her retirement, Ray served on various boards, including the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, Lakewold Foundation, American Ecology Inc., and Washington Institute for Policy Studies. She lectured as a senior scholar at the Institute for Regulatory Science at the University of Maryland.

She also collaborated with Guzzo on two other books, "Trashing the Planet" in 1990 and "Environmental Overkill" in 1993.

Ray never married. Survivors include four sisters: Marion Reid of Fox Island; Dr. Jean Ray of Long Beach, Calif.; Julianna Strong of Salem, Ore.; and Alvista Steele of Clatskanie, Ore.; and 13 nieces and nephews.

Services are pending. But a private family funeral is planned, with a public memorial service to be held in one to two weeks.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

----------------------------------------------- DIXY LEE RAY IN HER OWN WORDS: ----------------------------------------------- Asked on election night, Nov. 2, 1976, to explain her success, she smiled: "It can't be because I'm so pretty?"

Later, on the same subject: "People were always asking how does someone who has never been in politics before win. The real reason, which confounded the experts, is that I've been all over this state, and I've looked into the faces of all these good, decent people."

On being governor, in a 1977 television interview: "I think that my greatest disappointment was to realize that a lot of people expected instant perfection, instant success."

In 1977: "Environmentalists who beat their breasts and wave their arms only represent a small percentage of the population. And my impression of them is that they hate people. And the only way they like the Earth is when it has no people on it."

In a 1969 interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "The only answer for this nation is cessation of its efforts to support the rest of the world . . . Worst of all is rushing in to save starving populations . . . I don't see this obsession with the lowest strata of humanity against all biological experience."

April 1976: "The first atomic warhead I ever saw was like a piece of beautiful sculpture, a work of the highest level of technological skill. It's the point of a spear."

October 1975: "A nuclear-power plant is infinitely safer than eating because 300 people choke to death on food every year."

July 1976: "You can't have a Garden of Eden. There is no such thing as a little bundle of love without a pile of dirty diapers."

--------------------------------------- WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT DIXY LEE RAY: --------------------------------------- Lou Guzzo, friend, political aide and co-author: "She should never have gone into politics. She disliked trivia. She disliked compromise. We thought it was time for someone in politics who tells the truth all the time. It didn't work."

Former House Speaker Bill Polk, Mercer Island Republican: "She said what she wanted and let the chips fall where they may. You probably wouldn't elect anybody like her again. Which is too bad. I think it would be a breath of fresh air."

Gordon Walgren, former Senate leader, who blamed Ray in part for his indictment in the "Gamscam" scandal: "I'm sure she made valuable contributions as an educator. I can't remember any as governor."

John Spellman, former governor and King County executive whom she defeated for governor: "Dixy was one of a kind. She had a brilliant mind. Her strength was as a teacher and a lecturer. She had this really bubbling personality. People weren't quite used to anybody that outspoken. But whatever she said, people still loved her."

TIMES STAFF, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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