WEST FRANKFORT - Ken Gray extends a cupped left hand to a visitor. His grip isn't what it used to be, but it is important for him to formalize the greeting. That is how gentlemen behave.
His right hand, which was shaken by countless political dignitaries - including eight presidents - during his 24-year congressional career hangs listless. A stroke in 1999 left him paralyzed on that side. He admits it has slowed him down, but hasn't stopped him. His mind is sharp and he likes to keep on the move, never standing for too long in one place.
Gray spends much of his time these days working to resurrect his Presidential and Congressional Museum, which he closed after the stroke. It is being relocated from the Factory Stores of America outlet mall in West Frankfort to the former site of his wife's Holley Ministries Worship Center at 800 N. Douglas St.
"I'm paralyzed. It makes it tough," Gray laments as he limps past a maze of framed photographs, press clippings and memorabilia he began collecting when voters sent him to Congress for the first time in 1954.
Many of the items are tattered, having been packed and unpacked several times - this is the museum's fifth location - but Gray looks beyond the blemishes. Each bears personal significance to him.
"I have the pen President Eisenhower used to sign the Interstate Highway Act," Gray, who notes that he helped write the legislation, said as he stops in front of a photo of Ike. "It is the only one he used."
In assessing the more than 20,000 items he will display, Gray bristles when asked if he is a "pack rat."
"I am saving history for posterity," he says.
Gray's black wingtip shoes are splattered with white paint - a sign that he and his skeleton crew have been working hard for months trying to reassemble the museum. He hopes to have it reopened by July 4.
His conservative shoes are in contrast to his flamboyant garb - a wine-colored sport coat, two-tone dress shirt, bow tie and black slacks. Such flashy dress became his signature during his tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives. It remains his trademark today.
"When I went to Congress, everyone was wearing undertaker suits," he says, leaning close to his listener. "Since this was 'the people's House,' I decided we should look and act like regular people."
If "regular people" were magicians as he once was, then such attire would be apropos. But a regular guy Gray is not. He is living history who can switch in one breath from talking about bringing to Southern Illinois some of the largest federal works projects ever, to meeting with John F. Kennedy the day before the president was assassinated.
Gray moves past a baking pan strategically set on the floor to catch water leaking from above. The pan is full. He finds a picture of the walking cane President Harry S. Truman carried during a 1948 visit to West Frankfort.
Gray tells the story of how it came into his possession. It was supposed to be auctioned, but a thunderstorm pre-empted the sale. Gray was the auctioneer for the event, and Truman said he wanted the future congressman to have it. Gray will display it in a glass case when the museum opens.
Like the cane, all of the artifacts, photos and bric-a-brac serve as cue cards that prompt Gray to tell the story hidden behind them. In listening to him talk, one wonders if people visiting the museum without Gray present could interpret all they see.
There are more than political history lessons to be learned at the museum. There is a dedication to Elvis Presley - Gray is a fan of the "King." There is a memorial to the astronauts who lost their lives in the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle accidents. Another display celebrates man's first walk on the moon.
"I've asked NASA to give us an actual space suit," he said.
In a room to the rear are more than 700 Barbie and Ken dolls, each adorned with clothing replicating what was worn during historical moments, such as presidential inaugurations, the first Miss America pageant, and Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding, to name a few. The clothing was handmade by Dora Owens Anderson, a former Carbondale resident now living in Springfield. Gray is proud of the display.
"The work she did was meticulous," he said.
At the entrance of the museum is a calliope. In the main room will be what is left over from Gray's vintage car collection - he sold most of his autos in 1987 to cover losses from the Ken Gray Antique Auto Circus he once operated in West Frankfort. There is a suit of armor, a wall-size picture of the New York skyline featuring the World Trade Center, another enlarged photo of the gardens at George Washington's Mount Vernon home.
"I want to have something here for everyone," Gray says. "If someone isn't interested in politics there will still be something interesting to see."
But those are sideshows. The main event is the history displayed in which Gray took part. Gray, who will be 79 Nov. 14, was first elected to Congress in 1954 and served 17 years as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds. After suffering a mild heart attack on the floor of the House in 1974, he retired, but returned for two more terms from 1984-1988.
His position on the subcommittee put him in the catbird seat for directing public works projects toward Southern Illinois. In all, Gray estimates he channeled $7 billion to the region.
Gray rattles off his list of accomplishments: $60 million for Rend Lake; $1.2 billion for Olmsted Lock and Dam; Cedar Lake; 120 post offices, and federal buildings in Carbondale, Benton and West Frankfort. In all, Gray had his hand in about 4,000 federal projects for the region.
His adeptness at securing federal money for his district gave him the name "The Prince of Pork." Gray used to wear the title proudly, even correcting one reporter in 1997 that he was, in fact, not the prince, but "The King of Pork."
Gray is less humored by the title these days.
"We built $100 million of public housing in Southern Illinois. Is that considered pork? Carbondale used to have a little old post office with no parking. We brought a new postal sectional center there. Is that pork? I helped get the funding for the SIU towers," he said. "What they call pork, I call jobs and economic development."
One of his proudest achievements was not just cowriting the interstate highway legislation, but in bringing more than 500 miles of those roadways through Southern Illinois, including Interstates 57, 64 and 24.
"Eisenhower got credit for the highway program, but he only wanted to connect one military base to another," Gray said. "I worked to bring 57 south from Effingham, where he planned to stop it, and then started working on getting 64 and 24.
"It is ironic; his name and his five stars are on those highways," he says, trailing off on the thought. "You can call that pork or whatever you want, but if it hadn't been for the interstates we wouldn't have General Tire, Rend Lake or a lot of other things."
Gray won't admit it outright, but Eisenhower was the least favorite president under whom he served. He takes a more tactful approach.
"Truman proved anybody could be elected president," Gray said. "Eisenhower proved we could get along without one."
His favorite president, "Not even close - John F. Kennedy," he said. "Kennedy was a brilliant man, but down to earth. We got along well."
Gray considered Kennedy a friend. The two served in Congress together for five years - Gray in the House and Kennedy in the Senate - and got to know each other well.
Gray remembers vividly the day JFK was assassinated. He says he was one of the last to be with the president before Kennedy left for Dallas.
"We were on an airplane to Central America. Ironically, we were over Cape Kennedy when we heard the news. We knew he was shot, but didn't know he had been killed," Gray said.
All members of Congress were told to report back to Washington. When Gray's plane landed, he headed straight for Kennedy's Georgetown house.
"I was one of the first ones there," he said. "When Jackie came in she still had blood on her dress. I remember picking up John-John and playing with him," he said.
Gray's friendship with Kennedy helped secure funding for Rend Lake, he said.
"The Army Corps of Engineers had written 32 letters saying it had no intention of building the reservoir," Gray said. "We got $45,000 for a study that showed the tremendous economic development opportunities Rend Lake would create. When Kennedy saw the study, he said 'build it.'
"The corps now estimates that having Rend Lake saved $100 million in property damage from floods," he said.
Another president Gray admired was Richard M. Nixon.
"You might laugh, but Nixon never said 'no,'" Gray said.
Gray enters another room in the museum, where pictures of many of the famous people who have visited Southern Illinois are on display. There is Elvis, of course, as well as John Wayne. The museum includes many other proud moments for Southern Illinois.
Gray is asked if he feels that he is underappreciated by the people of this region for all his accomplishments. He tries to sidestep the question, but his pain is obvious.
"A Republican state representative one told me I hadn't received the recognition I deserved," he said, then changing the subject.
Gray is still reaching out to the people. He believes the museum is a way to return to the people thanks for their support.
"People have been good to me," he said. "I wanted to give something back. I don't have a lot of money, so I look at this as, what do you call it, in-kind services."