50 Influencers: Ken Gray, the Road to Rend Lake

INA, Ill. (June 3, 2017) - There are many names that dot the history of Rend Lake College. Some of those names have lent themselves to buildings on campus, others to classrooms. But, only one name literally leads every visitor right to the doors of RLC, Kenneth J. Gray.

Gray, a former United States Rep. who represented Southern Illinois in Congress between 1954-74 and 1985-89, is cemented in the history of the college and the surrounding area via Ken Gray Parkway, the road that the Ina campus proudly calls home.

KenGrayPKen Gray

His initiatives while in office delivered $7 billion in regional projects to the area. Initiatives like Interstates 57, 24 and 64, the Marion Federal Penitentiary, opening the Kaskaskia River to barge traffic and the construction of Rend Lake were all made possible through Gray’s work.

Known for his colorful demeanor as much as his politics, Gray is credited by RLC’s founding fathers as “being instrumental in creating the statewide community college system and Rend Lake College.” For his efforts, the Rep. was the one of the keynote speakers at RLC’s Dedication ceremony on Sept. 26, 1971, and received the first honorary degree awarded by the college.

ken gray dedicationspeech closeupWKen Gray speaking at RLC’s Dedication ceremony on Sept. 26, 1971. Click the image for a larger view. 

Honorary degrees are not handed out lightly at RLC. It took eight years for Gray to be the first, and 42 years after the first, the total number of such degrees awarded still was well under double-digits.

At the time, Dr. Allen Y. Baker, Vice Chairman of the College Board of Trustees, lauded Gray for his “many fine contributions” to the college.

He credited Gray with “giving us hope and confidence in ourselves.”

Gray, in turn, called his honorary degree from Rend Lake College “the finest single honor I received during two decades in Congress.”

Dr. James Snyder, then president of RLC, speculated, “It probably is the first honorary degree to be granted by a community college in the State of Illinois.”

ken gray dedicationspeechWKen Gray speaking at RLC’s Dedication ceremony on Sept. 26, 1971. Click the image for a larger view.

As for the road that carries Gray’s name, there’s a funny story there too.

Initially dubbed “Ken Gray Boulevard,” a critic argued that the name “sounds too much like something metropolitan.” The Trustees agreed, and during a June 18, 1974, meeting voted to change it to the “Ken Gray Parkway” we know today.

It’s hard to imagine Rend Lake College without Rend Lake

Dubbed the “Prince of Pork,” Gray was widely criticized by his opposition for his pork barrel politics, but the desperate need for water in Southern Illinois for decades had the area in dire straits. A three-year drought in the 1950s finally sparked talks about building a reservoir in the area.

"I can remember seeing a horse pulling a wagon with water on it and could name 50 communities around here that had to haul water. Lakes had dried up and cities and towns had to haul water. Even in larger towns, the lakes would dry up and towns couldn’t get water," Gray said in the book "Pass the Plate: The Legend and Legacy of United States Congressman Kenneth J. Gray.”

In 1973, thanks largely to Gray’s work in Washington, the Big Muddy River was dammed, and the lake was filled. Historical accounts say the impact was immediate with new housing and businesses popping up where drought had ravaged for years.

It is estimated that the lake provides for 35 towns and 1,200 retail customers over seven counties.

While it was originally constructed to bring water into the area, the lake has also saved the area from flood damage by regulating the water level.

“They call Rend Lake pork,” Mr. Gray said in a 2008 interview with The Southern Illinoisan, referring to one of the projects he had supported, a reservoir created when the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Big Muddy River. “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."

Born in the Franklin County town of West Frankfort in 1924, he graduated from Frankfort High School and served in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

In 2008, a portion of Interstate 57, between Mile Post 0 at the Illinois State Line and Mile Post 106 at the Marion/Jefferson County Line, was named the Ken Gray Expressway. Mr. Gray had helped write the Interstate Highway Act, which President Dwight D. 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."

He died on July 12, 2014, in Herrin at the age of 89, after a long battle with illness.

In addition to the two stretches of road, Gray is also memorialized with the Kenneth Gray Federal Building in Benton and the post office in West Frankfort carrying his name.

Outside of politics, Gray served in World War II as part of the Army Air Forces, earning three bronze stars for his service. He served as an aircraft crew chief and attained the rank of first sergeant before being discharged in 1945.

According to a news piece written after his death, Gray started wheeling and dealing early, opening his own business, Gray’s Roller Rink in West Frankfort, at the tender age of 13. He became an auctioneer at 16, and bought Gray Motors Car Dealership at 18, a business that he operated until 1954. He also operated an air service out of Benton Airport following the war.

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