WEST FRANKFORT, Ill. -- Former U.S. Rep. Ken Gray, who represented southern Illinois in Congress and earned the nickname the "Prince of Pork" for bringing $7 billion in projects to his district, died Saturday at age 89.
Parker-Reedy Funeral Home in West Frankfort said Sunday that Gray died at a hospital in Herrin after a long illness. Gray was first elected to Congress in 1954 and served ten terms until high blood pressure forced him to retire in 1974. He returned to Congress in 1984 to serve two terms but retired again, citing a muscular disorder caused by a tick bite during a congressional visit to Brazil.
Gray, a Democrat, was a colorful figure during his time in Washington. He was known for bringing federal projects to his depressed district, including a federal prison, an interstate highway, post offices and hospitals.
"They call Rend Lake pork," Gray said in a 2008 interview with The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale (http://bit.ly/1tEGWsz ). "Yet the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, six years ago when there was tremendous flooding, said that because of Rend Lake holding the water back, more than $100 million worth of property downstream was saved. If that is pork, pass me the plate, because I'll take another heaping serving."
In 2008, a portion of Interstate 57 in southern Illinois was named the "Ken Gray Expressway." Gray had helped write the Interstate Highway Act that President Dwight Eisenhower signed in 1956.
A state of Illinois news release announcing the expressway naming at the time said Gray brought seven presidents to southern Illinois. The statement said Gray "was known for his flamboyant wardrobe, humor, amicability and a fierce passion for bringing federal funds to southern Illinois."
That Washington wardrobe included brocade and shocking pink jackets.
"I was surrounded by 434 undertakers," he told the newspaper. "Everyone 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."
Gray was born in the Franklin County town of West Frankfort in 1924. He graduated from Frankfort High School and served during World War II, becoming a pilot.