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Blue, Robert Donald
(September 24, 1898–December 13, 1989)

–lawyer, city and county attorney, state representative, Speaker of the House, lieutenant governor, and two-term governor of Iowa—was a lifelong Republican and champion of the elderly, children, education, good roads, the "open shop," and industrial development. In 1946 he presided over the celebration of Iowa's statehood centennial. He is best remembered for establishing the Iowa Centennial Memorial Foundation, which has issued scholarships to hundreds of students to enable them to attend one of the state's institutions of higher learning.

    Blue was born in Eagle Grove, Iowa, one of three sons born to a railroad engineer father and a schoolteacher mother. He attended Capital City Commercial College and Iowa State College, served in the U.S. Army during World War I, and received a law degree from Drake University in 1922. For the remainder of his life, except for his four years as governor, he resided in Eagle Grove, practicing law and managing his extensive agricultural properties. In 1926 he married Cathlene Beale; they had two children, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. A lifelong Methodist, Blue was active in civic organizations, especially the American Legion, Shriners, Masons, Rotary, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Phi Alpha Delta, and Moose.

    Blue began his political career as a county attorney (1924-1931), a common springboard to state politics in many midwestern states. After a brief stint as city attorney, he was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1935, where he served as Republican floor leader (1937-1941) and Speaker of the House (1941-1943). After a single term as lieutenant governor, Blue was elected governor in 1944 and served the traditional two terms. His campaign for an unprecedented third gubernatorial term was derailed by William Beards-ley in the Republican primary of 1948, a defeat that ended his formal political career.

    Blue's stint as a state officeholder (1935- 1949) occurred during one of the most tumultuous periods in Iowa history, one marked by the Great Depression, World War II, and postwar reconstruction, a time when Iowa was transformed from a traditional, rural, agrarian society to a modern, urban, industrial one. While Blue's reaction to modernization was, like that of most of his contemporaries, ambiguous, he often proclaimed that the "past is part of the present, and the past and the present are a part of the future."Accordingly, he favored programs that would accelerate manufacturing and urbanization, as well as those designed to facilitate the survival and prosperity of small towns and rural areas. He also advocated collaboration between state government and private-sector institutions, with minimal "interference" by the federal government.

    Those principles inspired the initiatives that he regarded as the most important achievements of his tenure as governor. Chief among these was the Iowa Development Commission, which brought together representatives of agriculture, light and heavy industry, retail trade, and "all kinds of businesses" under state auspices to oversee the state's economic development. Related priorities were his various efforts at tax equalization between counties and between urban and rural areas, his farm-to-market road initiative, school consolidation, and the upgrading of teacher training and educational facilities. In 1947 he lent his support to the formation of a national commission to study discrimination against women.

    Regardless of the issue, Blue always defined himself as a "moderate Republican."Yet despite his emphasis on conciliation and moderation in most matters, Blue proved to be intransigent and uncompromising on the question of labor's right to organize and bargain collectively. When the legislature passed a "right-to-work" law that prohibited making union membership a prior condition of employment (closed shop), organized labor and its allies tried to convince Blue to veto the law. When he refused, between 15,000 and 20,000 people marched on the capitol and demanded that the governor meet with them. Speaking while standing on a chair hastily commandeered for that purpose, Blue claimed that his father had belonged to a railroad union and that he, too, believed in the principle of unionization, but only if membership was voluntary (open shop). But union labor, he claimed, was an "infinitesimal part of the whole state of Iowa," and closed shop unions would undermine his and the Iowa Development Council's efforts to attract new industry to the state. When he had finished speaking to the demonstrably dissatisfied crowd, Blue entered the capitol, apparently convinced that he had carried the day. Forty years later Blue still insisted that the crowd's silence signified agreement "until the politicians got ahold of them, and they started a campaign against me for reelection."

    Over the remaining half-century of his life, Blue devoted most of his time and energy to the cause of the elderly, an issue that he had embraced as governor by sponsoring a retire ment pension program for public employees and mandating inspection and licensing of nursing and retirement homes. He was a charter member of the Iowa Commission on Aging (1965-1976) and was on the advisory committees to five governors on problems of the aging. He also served on the National Planning Board of the White House Commission on Aging, as well as on the National Advisory Council of the Office of Economic Opportunity. In addition, he was a member of the boards of trustees of several Methodist retirement homes throughout the state, and was instrumental in promoting the construction of the Rotary Ann Home in Eagle Grove, sponsored by the local chapter of that service organization.

    Active to the end, Blue died of complications from a stroke in Trinity Regional Hospital in Fort Dodge and was buried in Eagle Grove.
Sources The best source of information on Blue are the Papers of Robert Donald Blue in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, which includes correspondence, election and campaign materials, photographs, scrapbooks, sound recordings, and the records of various state departments. Especially interesting and informative is the 60-page transcript of an oral history interview of Blue conducted in Eagle Grove on April 24, 1989, by Mary Bennett of the State Historical Society of Iowa. Also useful are the entries on Blue as legislator and governor in the Iowa Official Register from 1933 through 1949. A concise summary of his life can be found in his obituary in the Des Moines Register, 12/16/1989.
Contributor: John D. Buenker