Bill Ray did more than many realize

Posted: Friday, July 21, 2000

My opinion of Bill Ray has not changed much since I met him on south Franklin Street one drizzly noon hour nearly 40 years ago. He's an okay guy.

I was on my way to the old City Cafe - I mean really old City Cafe - which was on the channel side of the street. As I approached the doorway of a small business a scowling, stocky dark-haired man appeared. I passed him with a nod.

``Hey.'' He said loudly. I stopped and turned around.

``You don't know what you're talking about,'' Bill Ray said. It was a line I was to hear from him a thousand times.

``What it is I don't understand,'' I said with a smile. My companion hung back. He knew Bill and knew what was coming.

``C'mere,'' Ray said, grabbing my arm, pulling me out of the mist and under the marquee.

For the next several minutes Bill lectured me on a topic which had been raised on my radio program. It was a talk program that aired in the early afternoon.

``You were doin' okay as far as you went, but you didn't know all the facts,'' he concluded, then added, ``Keep up the good work.''

I have no idea how many conversations Bill and I have had in the years since. We now stay in touch with occasional e-mails and telephone calls. Phone calls from Bill always begin the same way; he starts off with ``hey,'' or he just starts talking, assuming I will know who it is. I always do.

While we often disagreed on issues of the moment, it did not prevent us from discussing those issues more-or-less calmly and it never stopped us from sharing a joke or making small wagers on football games. Bill sometimes shared insights generally unavailable to those outside the corridors of power so I could better understand the delicate and sometimes convoluted steps involved in the political waltz.

He was often highly critical of the media, particularly newspaper people from the railbelt, but he was not averse to raising hell with local reporters too. He and the late Robert Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Times, did not get along well. It would be my guess he had no fond and lasting memories of Bill Tobin, who was the Times' editor for many years. I could be wrong.

If you know Bill or if you have worked with him you have your own stories to share. I have.

In the early 70's I was Administrative Assistant to Governor Bill Egan. In that capacity I dealt with the Executive Office budget and the budgets for a batch of sub-agencies that have now, wisely, been moved into other departments. I had a stack of budgets on my desk and the good fortune to have staff people who knew them inside and out. Senator Ray took issue with something in the Governors Office budget - I believe Bill thought we were asking too little for a certain item - and made his feelings clear during a budget hearing. To make sure I understood he was not in agreement Bill stormed into my office the next morning and decried, in a loud voice, the general ineptness, sloth and incompetence of those responsible for preparing the document. As a final gesture of his contempt Bill raised a two-foot high stack of hardcover budget books in the air, slammed them down on my desk with a bang that could be heard on the street and stormed out. Everyone on the third floor heard every word.

I sat quietly, sipping coffee, waiting. Two minutes later an impish face popped into my doorway.

``How'd I do?'' He asked in a whisper.

``On a scale of one to ten I'd give it a six,'' I replied. He grinned and left.

Bill knew how and when to grandstand; when to smile and when to scowl and there are colorful stories, some of them more-or-less true, of his confrontations with colleagues and bureaucrats. Bill can sniff out a phony and a lightweight quickly. He can be impatient, stubborn, nasty and nice - all in the same conversation. A Senate colleague might find Bill's left arm around his shoulder while Bill's right hand picked his pocket. Some of the senator's constituents may have found him abrasive and even arrogant at times but none ever doubted his ability to bring home the bacon for Juneau.

I've always wondered whether the Juneau community has given Bill the credit he is due not only for his highly visible and significant leadership in Capital move battles, but for less obvious achievements that have assured Juneau's growth. I know there are community leaders who are well aware of these contributions. Although former contemporaries in the Senate and House, and several governors might be loath to admit it, at least publicly, they would agree Bill played a seminal role in drafting and adopting legislation of enduring value to every citizen of the state.

There are politicians apparently born with the ability to see issues more clearly and quickly than most of us and who understand both sides of a question. They seem gifted with the ability to analyze an opponent's weaknesses and to perceive opportunities for compromise. They understand when to squeeze and when to smile. Bill was one of those politicians. Surely he possessed some of those abilities when he entered politics, but I believe he would be the first to admit he was a better politician at the end than he was at the beginning.

I believe Bill and Nancy left today. I hope you had a chance to say thanks before they departed and if you did not, make a point of it when you see Bill on one of what I suspect will be frequent visits to Juneau. He will be back to see the kids and many friends. And we all come back to run with the humpies on last time.

Warren W. Wiley, a former Juneau resident, political observer and radio personality, now lives in Montana. He can be reached by e-mail at

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