WEST FRANKFORT – U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart (D-Illinois) spoke Saturday at the funeral of former U.S. Rep. and friend Ken Gray.
"Today, we come together to mourn the loss of our dear friend, our advocate, our congressman – Kenny Gray.
To Toedy and the entire Gray family – my heartfelt sympathies are with you. Know that thousands of Southern Illinoisans share your heartache today. I also bring you the sympathy of the institution Kenny loved, the United States House of Representatives. Kenny’s passing this week was a reminder to me that I walk in the footsteps of giants in representing Southern Illinois in Congress. It was an honor for me to bring home from Washington this week the American flag that is here on the casket today. It was flown over the U.S. Capitol this week in honor of Kenny, one of the most memorable men to have served in Congress.
From roller rink owner at age 13, to auctioneer at age 16, Kenny was a true Southern Illinois original. From car dealership owner to helicopter pilot to serviceman in the Army Air Force, Kenny did it all.
Truth be told, there’s an interesting story behind his enlistment. Kenny knew you had to be 20 years old to become a pilot trainee on the flight crew. But he wanted to serve his country. So at the ripe age of 18, Kenny lied about his age and became a pilot, serving with the 12th Air Force in North Africa as crew chief. He ultimately achieved the rank of first sergeant.
Kenny found his true calling, however, as our congressman. Through his hard work, we can be thankful for Rend Lake, providing recreation areas and flood control and drinking water to thousands. We rely on the easy access, job creation and tourism dollars that three interstates brought to Southern Illinois. And we can count ourselves lucky to have hundreds of jobs brought to the region through the Marion Federal Prison.
In his 24 years in Congress, Kenny delivered more than $7 billion of federal projects and funding to the region. After all, the Prince of Pork made sure to serve heaping helpings to Southern Illinois.
Kenny also put us on the map at a time when national attention was everywhere else but our region.
Kenny convinced President Jimmy Carter to come to Southern Illinois and tour one of our region’s greatest assets – coal mines. To this day, President Carter is the only sitting president that has gone down into the depths of an underground coal mine. And he did it right here, thanks to Kenny.
He also led a delegation to Southern Illinois University, and to Marion. Kenny wanted to show the delegation the true advantages of Southern Illinois – unique access to higher education, natural beauty, and a hub for economic activity in the region. That delegation included President John F. Kennedy.
I believe Kenny’s life and legacy is about much more than the projects he brought back home. And it is about more than his colorful personality or his colorful wardrobe.
No, Kenny’s true legacy to Southern Illinois is that he believed in our region’s potential and inspired us to strive for it each day. By his example, he led us to be optimistic and dedicated. He showed us how to be tenacious and creative to make our region prosper.
When times were hard, as they often are in Southern Illinois, Kenny told us to come together, work hard and persevere in the face of adversity. When other places had more clout or more money or more attention, Kenny reminded us to remain focused on our own destiny. And that rubbed off on all of us. We had to think creatively, work hard and believe in our own destiny. In many ways, Congressman Kenneth James Gray set the tone for Southern Illinois.
He always believed in our people. And he always believed in our region’s potential.
Until the day he died, Kenny Gray never stopped working for Southern Illinois.
Kenny left us a message for future generations of Southern Illinoisans to remember. A message we need to be reminded of today maybe more than ever before.
And that message is this. Don’t ever stop believing in Southern Illinois. Don’t ever doubt we can accomplish great things. Don’t ever give up on the region we love.
One final thought from Hebrews, Chapter 12, verse 1: Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Kenny, you have run the race, a good race and we’ll never forget you. Rest in peace, Congressman."