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The Daily American - West Frankfort, IL
  • 'We've lost a giant'

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  • Kenneth J. Gray, the retired Southern Illinois Congressman who brought federal projects and money home during his 12 terms that changed the entire region, died late Saturday. He was 89.
    “We’ve lost a giant,” said Jim Kirkpatrick, who worked as a Gray Congressional assistant during his final two terms in office. “I can’t think of anybody in Southern Illinois that has had as much influence as Ken Gray. There are people who have had a lot of influence on the region, but Ken was a one and only.”
    Gray’s influence stretched from building three Interstate highways through Southern Illinois when the region was left out of initial Interstate system plans to finding the funding to dam the Big Muddy River and solve increasing water shortage problems in the region by building Rend Lake.
    Born to Thomas W. and Anna Reed Gray in West Frankfort, Gray’s classmates remembered him as a “nice, quiet boy,” according to the Daily American archives. However, he was a boy of great ambition.
    After being praised for perfect attendance in first grade, a 6-year-old Gray told his mother he would be starting high school the next school year. As a 13 year old, he started his first business – Gray’s Roller Rink – where he was the owner, concessions vendor, floor manager and janitor. At age 16, he became an auctioneer, running an estate auction in Zeigler where he reportedly sold everything in the woman’s home, including the pictures on the walls and the dishes in the kitchen cabinets.
    During World War II, Gray served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in three different theaters. Upon his return to West Frankfort, he taught flying lessons and operated small airports in West Frankfort and Benton. He also served as Southern Illinois commander for the American Legion.
    He said American Legion members first came up with the idea of running for Congress.
    Gray made his first run in 1950, at the age of 26, running against Democrat Kent Keller in the primary. He lost in that primary, and Keller was defeated by the incumbent, Republican C.W. “Runt” Bishop, in the general election.
    Gray sat out the 1952 race – later he would recount that he saw that Eisenhower was going to win big for the Republicans in the Presidential race and he didn’t believe it would be a year to run against a Republican incumbent – but ran again and beat Bishop in the general election in 1954. He was 30 years old, and one of the youngest men to have ever been elected to Congress.
    Gray attacked the record of 14-year incumbent Bishop during that campaign, saying Bishop “has had no time to do a construction program to benefit the people in Southern Illinois.” He pledged to bring opportunity and prosperity to the region’s working men and farmers by bringing federal appropriations home.
    Page 2 of 3 - And then, Gray went to Washington and did just that.
    Bob Ellis, a journalist who has written for the Daily American since 1967, says the young Congressman was well-known immediately.
    “Ken had an effect on my life inadvertently long before I met him,” Ellis said. “I came from St. Louis to open a business and my partner from Murphysboro suggested West Frankfort as a location. ‘They have a young Congressman who lives there and I think he will help that town grow,’ he opined, perhaps the epitome of understatement.”
    Gray became known as the “Prince of Pork,” for his ability to get federal appropriations passed that benefitted his constituents.
    On Dec. 31, 1955, he held a “Sink or Swim” rally at the West Frankfort high school gym. He invited residents of Southern Illinois to come with their concerns and ideas for the region a better place to live. Water supply and roads topped the list, and topped Gray’s priorities.
    The initial Interstate highway plans left Southern Illinois out of most of the system. Just Interstate 57 would intersect the region from north to south. Gray’s repeated vows to withdraw support for the bill funding the system unless Southern Illinois got added roads led to the building of Interstates 64 and 24, and their intersections with I-57.
    Later, Gray would not only secure funding to dam the Big Muddy River and create the 18,000-acre reservoir known as Rend Lake, but also expand the scope of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to handle water and flood control projects around the country.
    From his position as chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Public Works, dozens of other federal projects – including federal housing, the Marion federal penitentiary, and more than 110 U.S. Post Office buildings – were funded in Southern Illinois through Gray’s influence in Washington, D.C.
    “I was irritated at the big-time media people who called Kenneth ‘The Prince of Pork’ for bring projects to Southern Illinois,” Marion Mayor Bob Butler once said. “He was just better at it than anyone else, and they couldn’t stand it.”
    But Gray wasn’t just known for his influence over the federal budget. He was also known for his influence on Congressional fashion.
    His patterned bow ties and brightly colored sport jackets made him stand out in a world of navy suits and red ties.
    Legend has it that when Gray wore a pink sport jacket to the U.S. Capitol one day to preside over the House as Speaker Pro Tem, viewers called in to C-SPAN to ask if there was something wrong with the camera, because they couldn’t believe a Congressman would dress in pink.
    Page 3 of 3 - Retired Congressman Glenn Poshard, who won his Congressional seat after Gray’s second retirement from Congress in 1989 tells a story of a reception held for new House members in Washington.
    Poshard wore a pinstriped suit. When he stood to introduce himself, House Speaker Jim Wright said, “I didn’t know you could buy a pinstriped suit in Southern Illinois.”
    Beyond the clothes and colorful stories and blind ambition, that quiet boy from West Frankfort was known as an all-around nice guy.
    “If Ken taught me anything, he taught me how to treat people,” said Kirkpatrick. “He was always courteous and polite with everybody, regardless of their political affiliation. He was as comfortable talking to a farmer or a coal miner as he was to a President or a Wall Street banker.”
    Kirkpatrick recounted Gray campaign to return to the House in 1984. It had been a tough race for Democrat Gray during a year when popular Republican President Ronald Reagan was running for re-election, and it was almost 2 a.m. before the vote totals came in and allowed it to be called.
    A crowd was gathered at the building on the southeast corner of Main Street and Highway 37 in West Frankfort, which served as Gray’s local office for several years.
    Kirkpatrick recalls Gray took to the podium in the smoke-filled room and said, “When the smoke clears at the end of the day, who is left standing, but old Ken Gray?”
    “The crowd went wild,” Kirkpatrick said.
    Local constituents trusted Gray and called on him often for help. Kirkpatrick said it was not unusual to arrive at work in the West Frankfort office and have 15 to 20 people lined up to talk to Gray about problems with everything from social security to black lung.
    “He was genuine. He really liked people, and he liked to be around people. He was one of a kind,” Kirkpatrick said.
    Funeral arrangements for Gray are pending at Parker-Reedy Funeral Home in West Frankfort.

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