Former U.S. representative Kenneth Gray of Illinois, a onetime car salesman, magician and auctioneer who embraced the moniker “Prince of Pork” for the profuse federal spending he directed to his district during 24 years in Congress, died July 12 at a hospital in Herrin, Illinois. He was 89.
The cause was a heart attack, said his wife, Margaret “Toedy” Holley-Gray.
Gray, a Democrat who represented a region that included Carbondale, was first elected to the House in 1954 and served for 20 years before stepping down. A decade later, he won election again and held the seat for two terms before retiring in 1988.
He was widely known for engaging in what is derisively called pork-barrel spending. According to a widely cited estimate, he delivered $7 billion in projects through his support of federal highways in the 1950s and through the construction and maintenance of a federal prison, medical facilities and post offices, the need for which was sometimes disputed.
“The coal mines were beginning to close, and we had a lot of people out of work in southern Illinois,” he once told the Chicago Tribune. “I took that urgent need for roads — which ranked even higher among my constituents than the need for better housing — back to Washington.”
Gray cut a memorable profile on Capitol Hill when he donned his wildly colored suits and ties and patent-leather shoes. He traveled in a white Cadillac and maintained a houseboat named Roll Call.
“I was surrounded by 434 undertakers,” he told the Southern Illinoisan, explaining his colorful attire. “Everyone [in the U.S. House of Representatives] was dressed the same, in a black suit with a dark tie. Now, I got into this business to break the political mold. I wanted to stand out.”
During the 1970s, Gray drew wide attention for his involvement in a planned renovation of Union Station, an ill-fated venture that would have turned the train station into a tourist education center.
As a subcommittee chairman on the House Public Works Committee, Gray became one of the initiative’s most outspoken supporters. In 1967, he announced a plan that involved private rail companies, promising that it would “not require one cent of taxpayers’ money.” Legislation authorizing the construction of the visitors’ center was passed the next year.
The plan, however, rolled out in what The Washington Post described as “an almost unparalleled example of congressional bungling.” By 1988, $240 million in federal money had been spent, The Post reported, much of it to save the station from falling into complete disrepair.
Unforeseen problems including high inflation and financial strain on the rail companies had complicated the project. Gray also noted that he had left office amid the work. “I’ve been bludgeoned into the ground with this,” he told The Post in 1988.
The Union Station project also figured in Gray’s links to a congressional sex-payroll scandal in the 1970s. He had been the first congressman to hire Elizabeth Ray, a clerk who said she could not type and who claimed that a subsequent boss, Rep. Wayne Hays, D-Ohio, had kept her on his committee staff to serve as his mistress.
Hays, who acknowledged a “personal relationship” with Ray, resigned from Congress in 1976 amid a House ethics committee investigation, which ended with his departure. He died in 1989.
Ray also told investigators that Gray had ordered her to have sex with Sen. Mike Gravel , D-Alaska, to secure Gravel’s support for the construction of the national visitors center at Union Station. Gray and Gravel denied the account, and they were not charged with wrongdoing.
Kenneth James Gray was born Nov. 14, 1924, in West Frankfort, Illinois. He was a licensed pilot and served during World War II in North Africa, Italy and France.
His first wife, Gwendolyn June Croslin Gray, died in 1995 after 53 years of marriage. Survivors include his wife of 13 years, Margaret “Toedy” Newsom Holley-Gray of West Frankfort; two daughters from his first marriage; a stepdaughter; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A son from his first marriage and a stepdaughter predeceased him.
After his congressional career, he operated an institution he called the Presidential Museum and More, a political hodgepodge that included, in addition to photographs of himself, pens used by presidents to sign legislation and Barbie dolls dressed as historical figures, among other items.
“The Smithsonian doesn’t have all the political memorabilia I do,” Gray told the Associated Press. “If I left this stuff in storage, everyone loses.”