Kenneth J. Gray

Last updated
Kenneth J. Gray
Kenneth J. Gray.jpg
Member of the
U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois
In office
January 3, 1985 January 3, 1989
Preceded by Paul Simon
Succeeded by Glenn Poshard
Constituency 22nd District (1985-1989)
In office
January 3, 1955 December 31, 1974
Preceded by C. W. Bishop
Succeeded by Paul Simon
Constituency 25th District (1955-1963)
21st District (1963-1973)
24th District (1973-1974)
Personal details
Born(1924-11-14)November 14, 1924
West Frankfort, Illinois
DiedJuly 12, 2014(2014-07-12) (aged 89)
Herrin, Illinois
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s)Gwendolyn June Croslin (1927-1995)
Margaret "Toedy" Holley-Gray

Kenneth James Gray (November 14, 1924 – July 12, 2014) was an American businessman and politician. He was a veteran of World War II, and represented Illinois in the United States House of Representatives from 1955 to 1974, and again from 1985 to 1989.


Early life and education

Born in West Frankfort, Illinois, Gray attended the West Frankfort and Pope County elementary schools and graduated from Frankfort Community High School. [1] At age 13 Gray started a business -– Gray's Roller Rink -– at which he performed almost every job alone, from floor manager to concession stand cashier to janitor. At age 16, he became an auctioneer, and at age 18 he became the owner of the Gray Motors car dealership, which he operated until 1954. [2]

World War II

General Eisenhower addresses soldiers preparing for D-Day assault. According to Gray's biographers, he is the soldier in visored cap (not helmet) at far left. Eisenhower d-day.jpg
General Eisenhower addresses soldiers preparing for D-Day assault. According to Gray's biographers, he is the soldier in visored cap (not helmet) at far left.

In January, 1943 Gray enlisted in the Army Air Forces for World War II. [3] He served as with the Twelfth Air Force in North Africa, with the combat engineers of the Fifth Army in Italy, and again with the Twelfth Air Force in Southern France and elsewhere in Europe. [4] Gray was an aircraft crew chief and attained the rank of first sergeant before being discharged in December 1945. [5]

According to the authors of Pass the Plate, a 2009 biography of Gray, he was at the Greenham Common air base in June, 1944 and was assigned as Dwight D. Eisenhower's driver when Eisenhower met with Company E, 502nd Infantry Regiment shortly before the unit boarded planes and departed for the assault on Normandy. The authors also indicate that Gray can be seen in the well-known photo of Eisenhower speaking with soldiers including First Lieutenant Wallace C. Strobel. [6]

Gray's awards included the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal. [7]

Post-World War II

After the war Gray was active in the American Legion, and was commander of the Southern Illinois region. In addition he served as Vice President of the Illinois Jaycees, and he credited these experiences with giving him the contacts and name recognition to mount a race for Congress. [8] [9]

Gray also completed training as an airplane and helicopter pilot and operated an air service at Benton, Illinois from 1948 to 1952. [10]

In 1950 Gray campaigned for a seat in the U.S. House. He lost the Democratic nomination to Kent E. Keller, who lost the general election to incumbent C. W. Bishop. [11] [12] Gray opted not to run again in 1952. [13]

In 1953 Gray was one of the founders of the Walking Dog Foundation for the Blind, a charitable organization to provide guide dogs to individuals who are blind or visually impaired. [14]


Gray was the successful Democratic nominee against Bishop in 1954 and won election to the 84th Congress. [15] He was reelected nine times, and served from January 3, 1955, until his resignation on December 31, 1974. [16] In Congress, Gray eventually decided to stand out from his peers by adopting out of the ordinary clothing and hairstyles, and became known for his flamboyant appearance, including permed hair dyed bright blonde or red, and unusual attire, such as white sport coats and shoes, bright suits, and wide, colorful patterned bow ties. [17] In a deadpan joke frequently repeated by Glenn Poshard, when Poshard met Jim Wright in 1989 and introduced himself as Gray's successor, Speaker Wright joked about Gray's appearance by looking the conservatively dressed Poshard up and down and saying "I didn't know you could buy a pinstriped suit in southern Illinois." [18]

Gray was known as the primary backer of converting Washington, D.C.'s Union Station into the National Visitor Center for the United States Bicentennial. [19] The center was open in time for the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations, but was plagued with poor design and workmanship, and cost overruns. It was closed again after the Bicentennial, and in the late 1980s it was redeveloped again to serve as a train station and retail center. [20]

He was also well known as an advocate of federal spending for his district, and used his post as a senior member of the Public Works Committee to obtain approval of projects including interstate highways, dams, housing, and the Marion Penitentiary. Dubbed the "Prince of Pork" for his securing of over $7 billion for projects in his area, [21] Gray countered by pointing out that the Army Corps of Engineers estimated that the dam that created Rend Lake saved hundreds of millions of dollars in property losses by limiting damage during floods of the Big Muddy River, saying "If that is pork, pass me the plate, because I'll take another heaping serving." [22]

Gray was an amateur magician and performed for civic groups and youth organizations in his district. In a 1956 House speech on the creation of the proposed Interstate Highway System, Gray carried a bouquet of red roses to the lectern to illustrate the "rosy" prospects for the road network as originally conceived. As he described the lobbyists and special interests who were "killing" the program piecemeal, Gray dramatized the point by snapping flowers off each stem of the bouquet until all the blossoms were gone. Then, as Gray reached the conclusion of his speech—that the lobbyists were going to fail and that the prospects for the Interstate Highway bill looked "rosy" again—white roses bloomed from the bare stems, and Gray earned an ovation from his colleagues. [23] Another example of Gray's abilities came during a private show, when Senator Estes Kefauver and he successfully performed the body levitation trick using Senator J. Allen Frear Jr. as the subject. [24] In 1959, Gray appeared on the TV game show To Tell the Truth . [25] Two panelists -- Polly Bergen and Tom Poston—correctly guessed that Gray was a member of Congress, auctioneer, and magician, but the other two panelists -- Ralph Bellamy and Monique van Vooren—did not. [26] In 1966, Gray appeared as a guest challenger on the TV game show I've Got a Secret . Introduced as a magician and pilot, he successfully stumped the panel, which did not guess that he was a member of Congress. [27]

Gray resided on a houseboat while serving in Congress. [28] In the mid-1970s there were several media accounts indicating that he had employed Elizabeth Ray and was involved in a lifestyle of wild parties and sex involving members of Congress and Congressional staff members. Gray denied wrongdoing, but was not a candidate for reelection in 1974 to the 94th Congress. [29] He was succeeded by Paul Simon. [30] After leaving Congress, Gray was active in several business ventures, including Ken Gray's Antique Car Museum. [31]

Return to Congress

In 1984 Simon ran for the United States Senate. [32] Gray ran again for the U.S. House and was elected to the 99th and 100th Congresses (January 3, 1985  January 3, 1989). [33] As with the later years of his first tenure, during his return to Congress Gray was commended for using his knowledge of parliamentary procedure and House rules, along with the public speaking and gavel-wielding skills he had developed as an auctioneer to frequently preside over the House, and members of both parties praised him for his tact and fairness. [34] [35] [36]

Gray indicated that he was not running for reelection in 1988 because of a muscular disorder caused by a tick bite that happened while Gray was on a congressional visit to Brazil. [37]

Retirement and death

In retirement, Gray was a resident of West Frankfort, and he opened a museum to showcase his political memorabilia and other mementos and souvenirs. In 1999, he suffered a stroke that left his speech slurred and his right side paralyzed. [38] [39]

He died on July 12, 2014, in Herrin, Illinois, at the age of 89. [21] [22] He was buried at East Fork Cemetery in West Frankfort. [40]


During World War II Gray married Gwendolyn June Croslin. [41] They were the parents of three children, Dian, Becky, and James; Gray's son James predeceased him. [42] [43] Gwendolyn Gray died in 1995; Gray's second wife was the Reverend Margaret "Toedy" Holley-Gray, who survived him. [42]


The United States court house and post office in Benton, Illinois is the Kenneth Gray Federal Building. [44]

In 2008, the post office in West Frankfort was named for him. [45]

Also in 2008, Governor Rod Blagojevich designated Interstate 57 between Mile Post 0 at the Illinois State Line and Mile Post 106 at the Marion/Jefferson County Line as the "Ken Gray Expressway." [46]

The Ken Gray Scholarship was created at John A. Logan College (JALC) in 2008. The scholarship is awarded to JALC students from Franklin County who are in their second year and plan to attend Southern Illinois University. [47] [48]

Gray was the subject of a biography, 2009's Pass the Plate: The Legend & Legacy of United States Congressman Kenneth J. Gray, by Maxine Pyle and Marleis Trover. [49]

In 2016 Gray's wife closed the Ken Gray Museum and donated Gray's collection of memorabilia and other items to Morthland College. [50] The college closed in 2018, and as of September 2018 the whereabouts of the collection is unknown. [51] The college's attorney indicated in news accounts that the building the collection was housed in was robbed and an FBI investigation was opened. [52]

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  1. WSIL-TV, Former Congressman Ken Gray Dead at 89 Archived 2014-07-25 at the Wayback Machine , July 13, 2014
  2. Leigh Caldwell, West Frankfort Daily-American, 'We've Lost a Giant' Archived 2014-07-25 at the Wayback Machine , July 13, 2014
  3. U.S. House of Representatives, Congressional Record: Remarks of Rep. John Shimkus, Volume 154, Part 10, July 9, 2008, page 14505
  4. Reuters, Former U.S. Congressman Ken Gray of Illinois Dies at 89, July 13, 2014
  5. Carbondale Southern Illinoisan, Ken Gray Recognition is Long Overdue, April 8, 2006
  6. Maxine Pyle and Marleis Trover, Pass the Plate: The Legend & Legacy of United States Congressman Kenneth J. Gray, 2009, page 63
  7. Jim Muir, Carbondale Southern Illinoisan, With Honors: Ken Gray Gets WWII Medals, November 12, 2001
  8. Marleis Trover and Maxine Pyle, Carbondale Southern Illinoisan, Ken Gray Knew how to Help Southern Illinois, April 15, 2008
  9. Alton Evening Telegraph, Rep. Gray To Receive SIU Award, February 17, 1968
  10. Eugene P. Trani, Paul Simon Institute, The Man and the Land: The Politics of Paul Simon and Southern Illinois, 1950-1973, 2010, page 51
  11. Illinois Secretary of State, Official vote of the state of Illinois cast at the primary election held on April 11, 1950, page 21
  12. U.S. Government Printing Office, Statistics of the Congressional Election of November 7, 1950, 1951, page 8
  13. Leigh Caldwell, West Frankfort Daily American, 'We've Lost a Giant' Archived 2014-07-25 at the Wayback Machine , July 13, 2014
  14. Harrisburg (Illinois) Daily Register, Articles of Incorporation Which Have Been Filed with the Secretary of State, September 23, 1953.
  15. "C. W. Bishop 81; Served in House". New York Times. New York, NY. September 23, 1971.
  16. Reuters Staff (July 13, 2014). "Former U.S. congressman Ken Gray of Illinois dies at 89". Reuters. London, United Kingdom.
  17. De Guzman, Katherine (July 14, 2014). ""Prince of Pork" Ken Gray Dies At 89". China Topix. New York, NY.
  18. Leigh Caldwell, Harrisburg (Illinois) Daily Register, 'We've Lost a Giant', July 13, 2014
  19. Maureen Dowd (1982-10-25). "In Washington, D.C.: Last Stop for Union Station". Time .
  20. Rachel Kaufman, Elevation DC, Union Station Marks 25 Years: A Look Back, September 24, 2013
  21. 1 2 Loney, Jim (13 July 2014). "Former U.S. congressman Ken Gray of Illinois dies at 89". Reuters. Retrieved 14 July 2014.
  22. 1 2 Becky Malkovich, Carbondale Southern Illinoisan, Former Congressman Gray dead at 89, July 13, 2014
  23. Arnold Sawislak, United Press International, Jasper (Indiana) Herald, Congressman's Hobby Can Bring The House Down, April 12, 1962
  24. Congressman's Hobby Can Bring The House Down
  25. Akers, Marshall (2013). "1956-67 Episode Guide: "To Tell The Truth", CBS Nighttime Series". To Tell the Truth on the Web.
  26. Kenneth Gray's appearance on To Tell the Truth on YouTube
  27. Mt. Vernon (Illinois) Register-News, Panel Misses Ken Gray's Secret, November 22, 1966
  28. Richard Phillips, Chicago Tribune, Another Lame Duck Smooths His Feathers, August 15, 1988
  29. Emily Langer, Washington Post, Kenneth J. Gray, Former Illinois Congressman, Dies at 89, July 14, 2014
  30. Walter D. Ray, Southern Illinois University Library, Senator Paul Simon Papers, 1928-2003: Biographical Note, retrieved July 15, 2014
  31. "Congressman Boosts Tourism with Museum" . Herald and Review. Decatur, IL. Associated Press. November 25, 1984. p. 41.
  32. Paul Martin Simon at Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, retrieved July 17, 2014
  33. Congressional Quarterly, Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947-1992: Committee Histories and Member Assignments, 1994, page 352
  34. Congressional Quarterly Almanac, Presiding: Hazardous Duty, 1987
  35. Chicago Tribune, Former Illinois Rep. Ken Gray dies at 89, July 13, 2014
  36. David Hawkings, Roll Call, Congressman of Lost Era Loved Earmarks, Magic Tricks, July 16, 2014
  37. Associated Press News Archive, Illinois Congressman Says He Won't Run In 1988, November 7, 1987
  38. Jeff Smyth, Southern Illinois News (Carbondale), Ken Gray Again Puts his Political Life on Display in his Relocated Museum, April 27, 2003
  39. USA Today, Former Illinois Rep's Museum Contains Political Artifacts, July 31, 2003
  40. Carbondale Southern Illinoisan, Funeral service scheduled for Ken Gray, July 15, 2015
  41. Langer, Emily (July 14, 2014). "Kenneth J. Gray, former Illinois congressman, dies at 89". Washington Post. Washington, DC.
  42. 1 2 "Kenneth J. Gray, former Illinois congressman, dies at 89"
  43. "Kenneth Gray Obituary". Evanston, IL. July 14, 2014.
  44. Pro Publica, 2010 Economic Stimulus Funds Expended by General Services Administration, Franklin County, Ill., retrieved July 17, 2014
  45. U.S. Government Printing Office, Congressional Record (House) Volume 154, Number 112, July 9, 2008
  46. Office of the Governor of Illinois, Press release: Gov. Blagojevich renames a portion of I-57 “Ken Gray Expressway”, May 8, 2008
  47. John A. Logan College, Selected Scholarships Archived 2014-03-26 at the Wayback Machine , retrieved August 9, 2014, page 6
  48. Anna (Illinois) Gazette-Democrat, Obituary, Kenneth J. Gray Archived 2014-08-12 at , July 17, 2014
  49. Stephen Rickerl, Paul Simon Institute, Southern Illinois University, Gray Reflects on Political Career at Book Signing, February 17, 2010
  50. Mariano, Nick (January 28, 2016). "Ken Gray museum closes in Marion; collection donated to Morthland". The Southern Illinoisan. Carbondale, IL.
  51. Smith, Isaac (September 27, 2018). "Where is the Ken Gray collection? Once housed at Morthland College, late congressman's artifacts are missing". The Southern Illinoisan. Carbondale, IL.
  52. "Where is the Ken Gray collection?".
U.S. House of Representatives
Preceded by
C. W. Bishop
U.S. Representative of Illinois' 25th Congressional District
Succeeded by
District eliminated
Preceded by
Peter F. Mack, Jr.
U.S. Representative of Illinois' 21st Congressional District
Succeeded by
Edward R. Madigan
Preceded by
Melvin Price
U.S. Representative of Illinois' 24th Congressional District
Succeeded by
Paul Simon
Preceded by
Paul Simon
U.S. Representative of Illinois' 22nd Congressional District
Succeeded by
Glenn Poshard