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Print Print Dixy Lee Ray Photo courtesy of
The Washington State Archives

Dixy Lee Ray
First Governor
1977-1981

“We shouldn’t accept things just
because somebody says so.”


- Dixy Lee Ray

Dixy Lee Ray, a political novice, took the state by storm in 1976, outpolling King County Executive John Spellman for the Governor’s Office.

An accomplished scientist, the feisty Democrat held many prestigious posts: first woman on the Atomic Energy Commission, director of Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, and longtime University of Washington professor. She dazzled students with her lively approach to marine biology and her memory for names, faces and details.

Ray was also nothing if not blunt. Her unique personality generated a myriad of conflicting descriptions — from brash and abrasive to courageous and heroic. There is no shortage of Dixy Lee Ray quotes. Her bumpy relationship with the Capitol Press Corps is legendary.

In the Governor’s chair, Ray promoted nuclear power and economic development. As a politician, she made more enemies than allies. Her feud with the state’s formidable senior U.S. senator, Warren G. Magnuson, cost her dearly. In a bid for re-election in 1980, she lost the Democratic nomination to State Senator Jim McDermott, a child psychiatrist from Seattle.

Dixy Lee Ray was born on September 3, 1914. She was one of five sisters raised in a modest home in Tacoma. Famously called “the little Dickens” as a young child, Ray hated her given name – keeping it a secret –and changed it to Dixy Lee later in childhood. (Her spelling of “Dixy” tells you she was a rugged individualist.)

Ray never married and lived on a Fox Island farm with many animals – including a couple of famous pooches who scurried after her wherever she went, whether it was the governor’s office or the barn yard. She was also an accomplished woodcarver in the American Indian style.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers created a Dixy Lee Ray Award in 1998 to honor her “significant achievements and contributions in the broad field of environmental protection” and her “advocacy to the development of those techniques that serve humanity.”

Ray’s niece, Karen Reid, says her aunt’s generosity is often overlooked: “She’d give you the shirt off her back.”

“She was the most courageous person I have ever known; unconquerable; a remarkable woman," her friend, aide and biographer, Lou Guzzo, said after the former governor died of pneumonia in 1994 at her home.

  • A marine biologist and former head of the Atomic Energy Commission, the Tacoma native stunned the political establishment when she announced her bid for governor.
  • The Democrat supported nuclear power and economic development.
  • Ray earned a reputation as a political maverick for stormy relationships with fellow Democrats and media. At her farm on Fox Island, then-Governor Ray once named her pigs after the Capitol press corps she viewed as adversaries.
  • Though her candor grabbed the headlines, Ray's family says her generosity was a little-known attribute. "She'd give you the shirt off her back," remarked her niece.