Bobby J Rhay
"Warden BJ Rhay"
January 29, 1921 - June 17, 2012
On June 17, 2012, we saw the passing of an extraordinary man - a cherished son, an
athlete, a decorated pilot, an investigator/writer, a respected prison warden, a community
leader, an avid sportsman, a friend to many and a beloved father.
Bobby J Rhay was born on January 29, 1921, the second child of Floyd A. and Margaret
M. Cox-Rhay, in Waitsburg, WA. The family, including siblings F. Oakley Rhay and H.
Lorene Rhay, moved to Walla Walla in 1937. He graduated from Walla Walla High School
in 1939 where he placed 2nd at the State Championships in the 440 yard dash, earning the
nickname "Rabbit". Upon graduation, he was awarded an Elks Club Scholarship to attend
Whitman College where he pledged to the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity.
While attending college, Bobby received his Civilian Pilot License in early 1941. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor,
Bobby immediately enlisted as an aviation cadet and after training, flew with the 350th Fighter group, 347th Squadron
in Africa. Bobby was a decorated pilot, flying over 50 missions in Africa, the Asian Pacific and Europe. He received
the Order of the Southern Cross, the Brazilian government's rarely awarded and highest honor, along with the Distinguished
Flying Cross. Bobby was honorably discharged after World War II as a Captain of the U. S. Army Air Force in
1945. He continued in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard for many years, eventually achieving the rank of
Bobby returned to Walla Walla after the war. He graduated with his BA in Sociology from Whitman College in 1947.
He then began his career as the Director of Classification and Sentence Planning at the
Washington State Penitentiary (WSP). There he met and married Patricia Anne Smith, the
daughter of the then current Warden, Thomas Edwin Smith.
In 1950, with a change of administration at the WSP, he was hired by the renowned,
Earle Stanley Gardner to head up the New York office of the "Court of Last Resort". His job
was to interview people using the polygraph and write about the findings from his investigations
in articles for Argosy Magazine.
In 1954, he returned to Walla Walla and the WSP as an Assistant Sociologist. He was quickly promoted
to Chief Sociologist and then Assistant Superintendent for Custody. By 1957, Bobby was Superintendent of the
Washington State Penitentiary at the age of 36, making him the youngest superintendent in the country.
In his role as "Warden Rhay", he made many changes and expansions at the Penitentiary. Buildings were
added to the grounds, areas of control were restructured and industries were expanded at the prison. By 1961,
the prison had become completely self-sufficient with gardening and canning, raising pigs, beef and chicken,
and producing dairy products. He supported educational opportunities for minimum security
prisoners in trades such as making clothes, manufacturing auto license plates, office
machinery repair and auto body repair/painting. In 1972, Bobby was featured in Life
Magazine for his progressive approach to prison reform.
For twenty-two years, Bobby and his wife, Patricia, raised seven daughters on the
grounds of the Washington State Penitentiary - Kathleen T, Colleen C, Maureen O, Bridgid
B, Megan I, Patricia D and Ann E. The story is often told how he spent his days in a house
of men, his evenings in a house of women! He was a loving father, always supportive of his
daughter's many activities and goals. He was often seen striding around Walla Walla with
a line of giggling girls in his wake, taking time out to share old fashioned milk shakes at
the prison soda fountain with the girls, loading up horses for barrel racing events, jumping
competitions and AAA quarter-horse races. He would rush home from business trips to be
a cheerleader for his girls, to head to the mountains for pint-size fishing and hunting trips,
or to raid local fields for evenings of shelling peas and talking.
Bobby was actively involved with the greater Walla Walla community. He served for
nine years on the SE Washington Fair Board, with three years serving as President. He was
a friend and role model to many and the holidays always found him delivering bouquets of
mums to brighten their season.
In 1977, Bobby J Rhay retired from Washington State and served as Director of Corrections
for the State of Montana. In 1981, he retired and settled in his hometown of Walla
Walla. In retirement, Rhay stayed active in the community, farming, running cattle, and
tending property in the Blue Mountains, where he indulged his passion for hunting and
fishing. His greatest joy was spending time with his seven daughters, twelve grandchildren
and seven great-grandchildren.
Although Bobby J Rhay's life had an impact on a broader stage, his deep family roots
and a lifetime of shared memories in the Walla Walla Valley has and will forever provide
that closeness for his family, now and for generations to come. Our father was a man bigger
than life; much loved and respected by all. He is now in heaven but forever in our hearts.
Bob was preceded in death by his father, mother, brother, sister and only four months
ago by the mother of his children, Patricia Anne Rhay.
A private family service, officiated by Pastor Roland Shanks of the Central Christian Church, was held
at Herring Groseclose Funeral Home on June 20, 2012. A Memorial Service in honor of this great man is being
planned for July 28, 2012 in Walla Walla. Please join our Facebook Page - Bobby J Rhay Memorial or
contact us at BJRhayMemorial@gmail.com- where we will share more information on the memorial time and
place; we also encourage you to share your stories and memories of our father. The family will also provide an
announcement in the Union Bulletin.