Dr. Dixy Lee Ray
Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, last chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission and former governor of Washington state, was born September 3, 1914 in Tacoma, Washington. Early on, Dixy's maverick spirit perpetuated her toward a life that would be anything, but conventional. Her given is a closely guarded family secret and, at the age of 9, she self proclaimed her self "Dixy Lee", shorting her nickname, "little dickens" and adopting "Lee" from Civil War General Robert E. Lee. Growing up with four sisters and no brothers, Dixy couldn't afford to accept the cultural stereotypes for boys and girls. Unlike most of her female peers, she pursue an education beyond high school, graduating valedictorian from Mills College in 1937 and, later obtaining a Ph.D. in zoology from Stanford. She served as associate professor in the Zoology Department at the University of Washington from 1948-1963.
Her public life began shortly after the Seattle's World's Fair in 1962. Dr. Ray was appointed to head the new Seattle Science Center, which was built for the fair. Her innovative and aggressive efforts to reach the public attracted first, the attention of member of the Smithsonian Institute and then, President Richard Nixon. In 1972 President Nixon announce that Dixy Lee Ray would be a member of the Atomic Energy Commission. Despite facing much criticism from political pundits and the media, she accepted the appointment and drove her motor home, books and dogs to the AEC headquarters in Washington, D.C. Six months after she arrived, she was appointed to Chairman.
While Dr. Ray expertise in nuclear power was limited, she was an expert communicator. Her major contributions to the nuclear power industry is that she was able to explain basic science facts regarding nuclear power safety in terms understandable by the general public and that she was willing to take on the political-antinuclear contingency face-to-face. Dr. Ray opened workshops in several cities for people "who are not sure of this nuclear stuff." She insisted "no industry is more closely regulated than the nuclear industry." During her tenure, she lead the public debate on nuclear power issues including Emergency Core Cooling Systems and Nuclear Waste and staunchly defended the AEC's conservative engineering approach toward the licensing nuclear power plants.
In 1974, President Gerald Ford signed legislation consolidating federal energy programs and the government programs managed by the AEC were absorbed into the Energy Research and Development Administration and the commercial industry research and regulation became the responsibility of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Dr. Ray maintained her leadership responsibilities at ERDA until early 1975 when she was appointed Assistant Secretary of State in charge of a new Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. After only a few months in her new position, she felt the "old dog" network operating in the Department of State was bypassing her authority and resigned to return to Washington State.
Washington State proudly welcomed Dixy Lee home. She was meet with many requests for lecturing and job opportunities; however, the job that enticed her the most required the consent of the people of Washington - the Governorship. Her experience in D.C. and her heart-felt desire to improve the lives of Washington citizens gave her the edge. On November 3, 1976, Dixy was elected the first woman governor of Washington State. As Governor she maintain some involvement with the nuclear industry - supporting Washington Nuclear Project being pursued by the Bonneville Power Authority and publicly criticized President Jimmy Carter nuclear energy program. Her Governorship lasted one term and she retired to her home on the Puget Sound. In retirement she authored two major books on the environment and public policy. On January 2, 1994, Dixy Lee passed away at the age of 79.
[Biographical information from "America's Atomic Sweetheart: Dixy Lee Ray, A Biography of Washington's Maverick Governor," by Parris Emery with embellishment by R. P. Martin].