In a recent editorial by Gary Metro in The Southern Illinoisan (Sunday, April 6, 2008) he concluded that: "It's time to set political ambitions and re-election bids on the back burners. It's time for consensus building, compromise and statesmanship. It is time for our elected officials to launch a capital plan that puts people back to work. More importantly, it is time to listen to the people." In the same April 6 editorial, the president of SIU, Glenn Poshard, emphasized the need to invest in education and infrastructure. He said if we do not, we might as well consider ourselves a third-rate country.
This same editorial could have been written in 1954 when Congressmen Ken Gray ran for the 25th Congressional District of Southern Illinois. It is still appropriate. History does repeat itself.
As educators and free-lance writers, the topics of negotiation and statesmanship are significant to us. One of our purposes in writing the Biography of Ken Gray is to document the attitudes, strategies and processes that pragmatic politicians use to provide resources and programs for their citizens.
"A fighting man for a fighting job" was Kenneth J. Gray's campaign slogan for his first Congressional term in 1954. As "a fighter for Southern Illinois," Kenny placed the needs of Southern Illinois above his own.
In 1954, Ken Gray, a veteran of World War II and recipient of three bronze stars for his service, decided after much cajoling that he would run against the incumbent for the 25th Congressional Seat of Illinois. Gray, a native and citizen of West Frankfort, was serving as Commander in Chief of the American Legion for the 25th district, an area that ran concurrent to the 25th Congressional District of Illinois. As Commander of the American Legion, it was Gray's job to find out what the needs of the veterans were. He did. The veterans asked him to run for the position of Congressman because many felt that the veterans' problems were the same for all the people in Southern Illinois.
In 1954, Southern Illinois economic conditions were considered distressed. Gray ran on a campaign of change. On the eve of the Congressional Midterm Election, Kenneth J. Gray made campaign history. During his 30 minutes of television air time, he reminded Southern Illinois that the area was suffering from unemployment with 30,000 people out of work. Kenny said that "if enough of the people voted for him the next day that he would "knock on every door" to get what Southern Illinoisans needed.
When elected, he immediately took action to be able to be in the position to lead and meet the challenges that Southern Illinoisans faced. Understanding the processes of government and project development, the first step he made was to be appointed to the public works committee in Washington D.C. Getting on that committee placed him in the position to propose public works projects for his district and to be with other Congressmen whose people had similar needs. Understanding the politics of the situation and not caring who got the credit, he worked with both political party leaders in trade offs that served the regions and states without leaving anyone out. Congressmen Gray advocated a unified approach to getting projects and resources for Southern Illinois. A word that he mentions is "unison." He believes that the players should think of working together for the region, state, and nation before they think of their personal benefits or consequences. His number one priority was to serve the people, regardless of their political party.
Ken Gray understood the pressure to be re-elected, as he was on the ballot every other year. However, his first priority was always the needs of Southern Illinoisans. He did not hide. He did not make excuses. He was always accessible to his constituency.
Gray studied the processes and protocols to enact legislation. On occasion, when there was a force of individuals opposing his bill, he knew exactly how to cut through the red tape roadblocks that were laid for him.
Gray also knew that Southern Illinois needed to be noticed and heard. He held a "sink or swim" meeting to listen to the people in the largest facility in the area, the West Frankfort High School Gym. Motorcades of cars from the area towns carried 5,000 Southern Illinoisans to the meeting on New Year's Eve 1956. The people wrote lists of their needs on paper and then told their stories to the federal and state officials. Present to hear the stories and report them to President Eisenhower were representatives from the Department of Commerce, U.S. Secretary of Labor, Agriculture, Illinois Industrial Planning Commission, U.S. Secretary of Department of Health, Education and Welfare, members of the Illinois State Legislature, U.S. Sen. Paul Douglas and Congressmen Charles Vursell of Salem. For 90 minutes, the community delegates told the 24 government officials and legislators the area needed new industries, public works projects such as highways and streets, city halls, new schools and additions to old ones, improved water and sewage systems, artificial lakes for water supplies, flood control and recreation, navigation, cheap transportation for Illinois Coal, water pollution and new sources for electrical power. The number one need mentioned was roads, which Gray remembered when he led the Interstate Highway Campaign. The nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Highway System in 2006. Ken Gray will be honored at a ceremony naming a section of Interstate 57 after him on April 25 at 1 p.m. at the Rend Lake Rest Area.
In Kenny's own words, roll up your sleeves and get busy. Don't roll them down until the job's done. He has not rolled his sleeves down to this day. He brought more than $7 billion into this area. You can see his footprints on such things as Rend Lake, hospitals, schools, federal buildings and U.S. Post Offices, as well as the National Interstate Highway System.
He was dubbed the "Prince of Pork," but Gray was not offended. His response? "If pork means, housing, education and jobs, then all I have to say is 'pass the plate.'"
Marleis Trover is the superintendent of Vienna High School and a freelance writer. Maxine Pyle is vice president emeritus of John A. Logan College and a freelance writer.