Dottie Ray, an Iowa City legend, passed away on Tuesday, August 6. I feel so fortunate that I was able to be her guest on the Dottie Ray Show with Jen Jordan, the recycling coordinator for the City of Iowa City, to talk about an ECO Iowa City, an 18-month initiative to create a greener Iowa City. Dottie so liked the idea of the environmental partnership between the library and recycling center that she let Jen and me be her guests on a monthly basis. (She told us to keep quiet that we were booked each month because one of her goals was to keep the Dottie Ray Show fresh and new. Jen and I were so thrilled that we had her wide audience that we never told anyone about our special treatment.)
Dottie’s career in journalism spanned more than seven decades, beginning while she was a high school student in Eagle Grove, Iowa, working on the student newspaper and the yearbook. At 17 she began her first job in Iowa journalism working Saturdays at the Eagle Grove Eagle. After completing two years of junior college Dottie, (Dorothy) Klein transferred to the University of Iowa in 1942 as a junior. She joined the Daily Iowan staff, writing obituaries. She also worked for Wilbur Schram, head of the journalism school, typing articles he submitted to the Saturday Evening Post. Schram encouraged her to apply to be the editor of the Daily Iowan. She followed his advice and was in the running against two other finalists for the editor-in-chief position, both men. When she was selected as editor, many were surprised, and when she hired an all-female staff, the reaction was even greater. In fact, her decision to lead an all woman staff, made state-wide news. John Gerber, in his book on the history of the University of Iowa, “A Pictoral History of the University of Iowa”, included a photograph of Dorothy Klein and her all-woman staff, in a chapter on campus changes from 1934-1964.
Dottie Ray’s career in broadcast journalism began at WSUI, (now part of Iowa Public Radio), with a show aimed at women. In a 2013 interview in Emily Busse’s series on Iowa Women in Journalism Dottie Ray recounts her history with KXIC. “Gene Clausen convinced her to come on their radio station at KXIC, stationed above what is now Pancheros at the corner of Clinton and Washington streets. Every Saturday, Ray became “President Alice” for half an hour. Any child who had their birthday the week before or the week after could attend the “birthday party on the radio” with cupcakes from the local bakery and chocolate milk from the dairy. For two years, she “just played and talked and had fun” with kids on air. After a couple years, Clausen had an idea for a new show, The Dottie Ray Show. To accommodate her needs, they put together a studio in Ray’s own living room. Every day for about 40 years, Ray came on the air at 11:45. Women at home sat down for lunch and listened to Ray’s show, followed by news. Ray recalls how a mother once wrote her explaining that the habit of listening to the show had become so routine, that when the music that precedes The Dottie Ray show came on in the afternoon randomly, her four year old ran to get the peanut butter out for lunch.
After about 40 years, she said, “women went back to work and homes were empty.” People began listening to radio outside the home — in the car or at work — and Ray decided it was time to end her show. But the station, now owned by Clear Channel, didn’t want to lose her show. “They said, ‘No, no no. What about doing it in the morning?’” she said. So the show moved to 8:45 a.m. “I thought, ‘That’s OK. I can get it out of the way and it will be a graceful way to bow out because you’ll lose all your listeners,’” she said. “And just the opposite happened. We moved it and now people are in cars going to work or yoga or whatever.”
The Dottie Ray Show ended in 2014. From the round table in her apartment she interviewed more than 32,000 guests. Each guest was greeted by Dottie with the offer of a cup of coffee and a request to pull up a chair. Dottie’s program was community journalism at its best. She helped to share the story of Iowa City and Johnson County and promote many many worthy causes. Every Monday through Friday, for more than five decades, Dottie Rays shared with the KXIC audience what was happening in their community.
Dottie Ray was, of course, more than her radio program. When I shared with Patty McCarthy, Development Director at the Iowa City Public Library, that I was going to write a blog post on Dottie, she said Dottie was not only a great friend and supporter of the Library, but that in 1982 she and Ann Feddersen were the first co-Presidents of the newly created Friends of the Iowa City Public Library organization. Dottie contributed to a multitude of community organizations and promoted initiatives for the betterment of the community. If you would like to learn more about this amazing woman’s life, watch another remarkable Iowa radio broadcaster, Ellen Buchanan, interview Dottie in a 1990 interview that is part of Tell Me Your Story. This past June, a documentary of Dottie’s life, Staying Tuned: The Dottie Ray Story, premiered at the Coralville Center for the Preforming Arts. The Documentary was produced with private funding including grants from the Iowa Arts Council, Humanities Iowa, and the Community Foundation of Johnson County. A copy of the documentary will be available later this year.