WEST FRANKFORT - During a political career that spanned nearly a quarter of a century former U.S. Rep. Kenneth J. Gray helped countless service men and women obtain military benefits or awards they deserved.
Recently, it was a reversal of sorts that found Gray on the receiving, rather than the giving, end.
Gray, a West Frankfort resident, was a distinguished pilot in the U.S. Army during World War II but never received the medals he was awarded during a three-year stint overseas during the height of the war.
Never at a loss for a quip or a quote Gray recently made a request to U.S. Rep. David Phelps to help him obtain the coveted medals.
"A painter never paints his house, a mechanic never fixes his car and a congressman never toots his own horn," Gray said. "But, at age 76, I think it's time I asked about my medals."
Phelps said it was ironic that Gray had helped countless individuals while he never received his own medals.
"What a lot of people don't realize is that before his prestigious political career Ken Gray served three years, in three different theaters in World War II," Phelps said. "And during his time in Congress he got a lot of medals for people who deserved them, but for some reason he never received his own medals and failed to get those that he'd been awarded. During a recent conversation he (Gray) told me about the many, many times he had helped service men and women. Well, today he is on the receiving end and I'm very proud and honored to have the privilege of presenting these medals. Not only did Ken Gray serve us well in Congress he served his country well during World War II. These medals are well deserved and long overdue … 56 years overdue."
During the ceremony Gray was awarded the European-African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, three Bronze Service Stars and Marksman Badge with Carbine Bar. Gray served from January 1943 as a crew chief with the Twelfth Air Force in North Africa and also served with the combat engineers of the Fifth Army in Italy. Gray finished up his service time by returning to the Twelfth Air Force and participated in combat over southern France and central Europe until he was discharged as a first sergeant in December 1945.
Labeled the "Prince of Pork" during his lengthy tenure in Congress - a label he proudly wears - Gray had a hand in nearly every public works project developed in Southern Illinois between 1955 and 1975.
"I love the title 'Prince of Pork' - 4,000 projects that totaled $7 billion - and I wore it proudly for Southern Illinois during my 24 years in Congress," Gray said. "I was chairman of the House Committee on Public Buildings which gave me an opportunity to do a lot of things that probably couldn't be done now. If I was there now I would have a hard time doing what I did then."
Gray was the driving force behind the construction of such notable Southern Illinois landmarks as Interstate 57, the sprawling 19,000-acre Rend Lake, the Rend Lake Conservancy District and major advancements at SIUC. And while Gray was responsible for many major construction projects in Southern Illinois, he also brought funding back to Southern Illinois that provided hardcore infrastructure, such as post offices, sewer and water projects and street improvements to virtually every Southern Illinois community.
Phelps said during the past 50 years Gray has been a mentor and inspiration to politicians at every level of government.
"Ken Gray is a legend, it's as simple as that," Phelps said. "We have a tendency to honor people after they're gone but I think we need to give recognition while these people are here with us. He was a great public official and now a decorated war veteran. Look any and every direction in Southern Illinois, bricks and mortar, highways, lakes, resources for education and health care facilities and you can see the successes of Ken Gray while he was a congressman. I can't imagine what Southern Illinois would be like right now if we had not had the services of Ken Gray."
The gregarious Gray took on a somber tone when asked what the ceremony and the medals mean to him now, more than five decades after he fought in World War II.
"I'm very humbled by this honor," Gray said. "I was hesitant to even make this public, but after what happened on Sept. 11 I thought something like this might help rally people around the job our service men and women are doing right now. Our military and our nation's leaders need to be in our thoughts and prayers daily."
Ever the master of ceremonies, Gray couldn't help but pass on one of his "gems" to the large crowd at the Annual JFK Dinner held recently at Benton Civic Center about the 56-year wait for his military medals.
"I feel a little bit like the guy who wrote to Dear Abby and told her that his wife had left home 15 years ago to get a loaf of bread and had never returned," Gray related to the crowd. "The guy questioned Dear Abby if he should wait any longer for her to return or should he go get the bread himself. I think 15 years is long enough for him to wait for a loaf of bread and 56 years is long enough for me to wait for my medals."
And from the rousing ovation he received from the large crowd on hand, they agreed with him.