Booneville mayor of 55 years said to be Kentucky's longest-serving

gkocher1@herald-leader.comFebruary 9, 2014 

BOONEVILLE — When Charles Long became mayor of the Owsley County seat in 1959, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and Fidel Castro had just taken over Cuba.

Fifty-five years later, Long, 94, remains mayor of Booneville, where the 2010 census counted only 81 residents. The Kentucky League of Cities says he is the longest-serving mayor in the state.

He's also among the longest-serving mayors in the country — perhaps the longest, if Wikipedia can be believed. The Internet encyclopedia cites as a source a tribute to Long entered into The Congressional Record by U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset.

The key to politics, Long said, is to "be honest, be friendly and never meet a stranger. I've been community-minded all my life. I've been on the (Owsley County) health board over here 53 years, and I'm chairman of it right now."

What's even more remarkable is that county election records confirm Long's claim that he has never faced a contested race for mayor.

Perhaps no one else wanted the job? Booneville City Clerk Ronnie Callahan Jr. disputes that notion.

"Charles has always been a respected member of the community," Callahan said. "I just think a lot of people knew they didn't have a chance running against Charles."

Said Tamara Shouse, billing manager for the Booneville Water and Sewer Department: "We are a poor community, and he's tried everything he can to help us. People respect that."

Owsley County's median household income of $19,351 is the lowest outside of Puerto Rico, according to census results. In 2009, the last year available, government benefits accounted for 53 percent of personal income. Four in 10 residents fall below the poverty line. In 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, 52 percent received food stamps.

Long built a political career extending water lines into remote rural areas where people were dependent on wells and cisterns. With the help of state and federal sources over a 40-year period, Long secured funding to extend water lines in Booneville and to 98 percent of Owsley County.

Today, Booneville Water and Sewer serves 1,800 water customers and 400 sewer customers, has 12 water tanks with a 1.5 million gallons of capacity, and extends into parts of Clay, Jackson and Perry counties.

"All the main roads and side roads of any consequence, we have a water line on it," said Booneville Water superintendent David Hall.

"I'm proud of that more than anything I've done," Long said.

He and other elected officials have had less success attracting manufacturing jobs to Booneville and Ows ley County. "We've tried and tried, but we cannot get a company in here," Long said. "People say, 'If you get a good road, you might get somebody.' But we've tried and tried. That's always been thrown up to us: 'If you get a good road in here, you might get something.' It's hard to pull money into Eastern Kentucky."

Prospects occasionally will visit the 80-acre industrial park south of Booneville, which has two available buildings.

"We have people say, 'Can't you get somebody in those buildings up there?' We've advertised and we've done everything," Long said. "We've had people come here and look at it. They leave and you never hear from them."

The son of a trucker and homemaker, Long recalls playing ball in Booneville's streets. "Every Thursday night we had young people's meetings, and after every ball game, we met at somebody's home and ate candy and popcorn," he said.

During World War II, Long entered the Navy at age 23. He served aboard a landing craft in the South Pacific that, among other operations, swept a river for mines in the Philippines.

In 1953, after returning to the States, Long bought a service station in Booneville that sold Blue Bonnet gasoline ("With the blue ribbon on it") from a Richmond wholesaler. It was there that Long grew to know people and gained their trust, said Owsley Circuit Clerk Mike Mays.

"We used to have a pretty good coal industry here, and the people who hauled coal all bought their gas at his service station and bought their tires there," Mays said.

Long made his first run for public office in 1954 and won a seat on what was then called the town board. Four years later he was elected mayor and took office in 1959.

To hear Long tell it, there wasn't much equipment for street maintenance at the time.

"When I went on the board they had a wheelbarrow, and they had some shovels and axes and things like that. The streets were mostly gravel," he said.

The city of Booneville today has 20 employees and an annual budget of $1.1 million. And things are changing. Last March, Owsley County voters approved the retail sale of alcohol. Long opposed the measure, but he and other city officials acknowledge that people looking to bring jobs to the community have asked whether Booneville was "wet."

Long has had his share of sadness, too. A grandson, Derrick Marshall, died in a car crash. A daughter, Charlotte Jean Marshall, died of cancer. And Ruth, his wife of 72 years, died in 2012 after 17 months in a nursing home. Ruth Long operated a beauty shop in Booneville; she and her husband retired from their day jobs at the same time.

"She was a beautiful woman," Long said, his eyes welling with tears. "She kept an angel food cake for me all the time."

Long also has a son, Charles Jr., who is a barber in Frankfort.

Long plans to run for another four-year term if his health holds up. He uses a walker to get around, whether it's at city hall or the Kountry Kitchen in downtown Boone ville for a meal of fried catfish. And he faithfully treks to University of Kentucky home basketball games; he's had season tickets since the early 1950s.

"He still goes and does, even though his knees are about to give out," Mays said, who accompanies Long to the UK games in Lexington. "But he's still got a good mind."

Said Long, "I like to stay busy," and without the mayoral responsibilities, "I would just go home and sit down and do nothing — I don't want to do that. I'd sit there and grieve myself to death. I loved my wife so much. I just don't want to sit down and look at the walls."

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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