- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

WEST FRANKFORT, Ill. — The doors of the low, gray building behind the Route 37 Motel swing open to a cardboard cutout of Barbara Bush festooned in Christmas ornaments. A few steps away, a wooden display case holds a blurry photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s dead body.

Welcome to former Rep. Ken Gray’s Presidential Museum and More, a collection of political artifacts and odds and ends gathered during the Democrat’s colorful 24-year career representing southern Illinois in Congress.

“I’m trying to give something back to the people, to preserve history for posterity,” says Mr. Gray, 78. “And I want there to be something here for everyone.”

There probably is. Rows and rows of Barbie and Ken dolls dressed as historical figures and a fountain pen President Johnson used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are among the collection of Mr. Gray’s 13,000 favorite things on display in his hometown.

The famously dapper dresser, whose success at bringing federal money back to his district earned him the nickname “Prince of Pork,” has been out of the public eye since a stroke in 1999 left his speech slurred and his right side paralyzed.

Now he hopes the museum, which opened Aug. 1, will put him back in circulation, highlight the $7 billion in federal projects he takes credit for steering to his district and teach people some history in the process.

He sees it as a public service. He has displayed his memorabilia over the years, but this is his grandest vision yet.

“The Smithsonian doesn’t have all the political memorabilia I do,” Mr. Gray declared on a recent tour. He was wearing a white polyester suit and multicolor shirt, and his short Afro had been dyed a pale red. “If I left this stuff in storage, everyone loses.”

For history lovers, there are presidential pens, a couple of wooden tables Mr. Gray said he bought from George Washington’s estate, a trademark coonskin cap worn by 1956 vice presidential candidate Estes Kefauver on a campaign swing through southern Illinois and more.

Then there are the Barbie and Ken dolls — Mr. Gray counts more than 1,000 of them — dressed in period clothing to depict everyone from Queen Isabella of Spain to Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Mr. Gray borrowed the collection from a former constituent so visitors could appreciate the elderly artist’s intricate work.

“It’s phenomenal,” he said, pointing to Princess Di’s miniature wedding dress.

Hanging everywhere are giant black-and-white photographs of Mr. Gray — usually young and smiling, often dressed in the only white sport coat in a sea of dark suits, and always reminding the people back home how close their local guy became to the most powerful men in the world.

In one, he stands, beaming, between President Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson on what he says was the eve of the president’s fateful trip to Dallas in November 1963.

As they wander through several rooms filled with displays, visitors will hear what sounds like a bubbling brook. It comes from an electronic photograph of a waterfall mounted on the wall.

Presidential cardboard cutouts are a major theme: Bill and Hillary Clinton in a golf cart, the elder President Bush in a scaled-down model of his World War II fighter plane, Teddy Roosevelt in a 1901 Oldsmobile.

Scandal lovers may be disappointed, however.

Mr. Gray hasn’t included any exhibits on what by all accounts was an active social life in Washington, where he kept a houseboat docked on the Potomac River to, as he puts it, host Boy Scout groups and other visitors from home.

Tales of less wholesome social gatherings on the boat made it into newspapers nationwide when one of Mr. Gray’s former receptionists, Elizabeth Ray, and other women named the boat as the location of several of their trysts with congressmen.

Today, Mr. Gray dismisses memories of the scandal with his perfect smile. “Out of 285 employees I had in 24 years on the Hill, [Miss Ray] was only one,” he said. “It was a blip.”

These days, the grandfather of five wants to talk instead about preserving history, his own included.

• • •

• Ken Gray’s Presidential Museum and More, 1000 Factory Outlet Drive, is near the intersection of Illinois Routes 37 and 149 in West Frankfort; phone 618/937-6100. The hours are 1 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; admission is $2 for adults.

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