‘Mayor of a Lifetime’ Celebrates Six Decades In Office

Press Release - 09/07/2018

‘Mayor of a Lifetime’ Celebrates Six Decades In Office
BOONEVILLE, Ky. (September 7, 2018) – When Charles Long first became involved with Booneville’s city government, the city didn’t own much at all – just a shovel, axes and a couple of wheelbarrows.

The streets were gravel. The vast majority of the county lived without running water.
But now, six decades later, Booneville has all the charm you would expect from a small Eastern Kentucky town. There’s City Hall and the Owsley County Courthouse around the corner from the Ole Bus Stop Diner, where seven days a week, you can find 98-year-old Mayor Long eating dinner and greeting neighbors and friends. The mayor lives a couple blocks away in a home built during the Civil War.

To many of the folks in Booneville, Ky., Charles is the “mayor of a lifetime.” This summer, he celebrated an important milestone: 60 years as the city’s mayor.

In that time, he’s overseen the installation of miles of water and sewer lines and built 13 water towers across the county. The mayor is also credited with securing the millions of dollars in grant funding needed to make it all happen.

“About 95 percent of the county of Owsley – which is the poorest county in the state of Kentucky – is connected to city water, thanks to Charles Long,” said former Kentucky River Area Development District Executive Director Paul Hall, a longtime friend.

Charles’s work has been recognized even at the national level. In a tribute entered into the U.S. Congressional Record, Rep. Hal Rogers lauded him as “one of the Bluegrass State’s most impressive politicians and the longest serving Mayor in the great Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

His long run in public service began in 1954, when he became a member of the Booneville city commission. Four years later, the commission decided that Booneville needed a mayor, and they selected Charles for the role. The public officially elected him the following year.

The impact he’s had on Owsley county isn’t lost on Charles. It was, after all, a lot of hard work.

“I thought I could help the community,” Charles said. “I have. I brought it to what it is today.”

The mayor's legacy

Charles has been interviewed a lot in recent years by state, national and even international media. They typically ask what he’s most proud of about his time as mayor, and he always tells them about bringing water and sewer services to Owsley County.

“Mayor Long is credited with bringing safe and reliable drinking water to most of Owsley County, but his contributions to Booneville go far beyond that,” Department for Local Government Commissioner Sandra K. Dunahoo said. “I’ve known Mayor Long for years now, as he has been a longtime friend of my grandfather, my father and to me. He never ceases to impress me with his commitment to public service, his family and doing what’s right.”

Of all his accomplishments, Charles perhaps speaks most fondly of his 72-year marriage to his late wife, Ruth. She was known around town for making the best angel food cake in the county – and always having one ready for her husband. She also ran Booneville’s first beauty parlor out of their home.

“They were just like peas and carrots,” said Tammy Shouse, who has been working alongside Charles as the city’s clerk for years. Ruth was the life of the party, and when Charles was with her, he let her shine. They always called each other “honey” and “baby,” longtime friend Jimmie Herald said, “even after all those years.”

The two met as teenagers, and although they were 13 days apart in age, Ruth was a year ahead of him in school. In January of Charles’s senior year, unbeknownst to their families, the two drove to Beattyville to get married.

After they had exchanged vows, Charles turned to the preacher and asked, “How much do I owe you?”

He replied, “How much do you think she’s worth?”

“I said, ‘She’s worth a whole lot, but I ain’t got that much,’” Charles recalled. “He said, ‘Well, anything you wanna give me.’ I had five dollars in my pocket, and I gave him three of it.”

The newlyweds returned to Booneville, where they kept their marriage a secret for three months. Charles worried that if his basketball coach found out he was married, he’d get kicked off the team. Ruth hid the marriage license behind a picture frame, where one of her six sisters eventually found it.

After Charles graduated in May, the couple stayed in Booneville. Charles purchased one of two service stations in town, called Blue Bonnet, where he charged 18 cents for a gallon of gas and fixed flat tires for a quarter.

Charles joined the National Guard, and while he was in Wisconsin for a 3-week maneuver, his wife gave birth to their daughter, Charlotte. This excused him from a yearlong training mission and ultimately kept him out of WWII until he was drafted into the Navy in 1942.

During his 23 months of naval duty, Charles spent 19 months in the Pacific theater, thousands of miles from his wife and daughter. He would send post cards to Ruth that contained hints of where they were, including the phrase “guinea pigs” if he stopped in New Guinea, Charles explained.

Charles has some fond memories of his time abroad, but it was also a lonesome time, he said. He was involved in 13 invasions, including the Battle of Corregidor, where Japanese kamikazes attacked American ships.

What’s more, Ruth gave birth to their son, Charles Jr., while he was overseas in the Philippines.

On the way home from the war, he stopped in California to debrief. Officers asked him whether anything was wrong with him that could require medical attention.

“There was – my nerves,” Charles recalled. “But if I told them this, they’d put me in a hospital there. I told a lie. I wanted to see that boy, my son.”

Charles and Ruth returned to life in Booneville after the war ended. Ruth continued running her beauty shop, which many local ladies said was the first place they ever got their hair professionally styled. Charles, who was community-minded even then, became involved in Booneville’s first town council and continued running the service station.

Herald, who served as Owsley County’s judge-executive from 1990 to 2002, was only about five years old when he first met Charles. Even though his family lived about 10 miles away from Booneville, his father insisted on patronizing Blue Bonnet.

“I remember asking my dad sometime later – I was probably 10 or 11 years old – I said, ‘Dad, how come you always come out here to get your gas?’” Herald recalled. “He said, ‘Because Charles is a good man.’”

Charles built a life on hard work, always trying to provide for his family. He often worked from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the garage, but that wasn’t his only business venture. After learning that a chinchilla fur coat could sell for $150,000, he purchased three pairs of chinchillas. It didn’t go as planned, but he still smiles when he thinks about the endeavor.

In 1959, Charles became mayor of Booneville, and Ruth became the city’s first lady. After Charles became active with the Kentucky River Area Development District, known as KRADD, the couple traveled frequently for conferences and meetings.

“She traveled all over the United States with me,” he said. “Atlantic City Boardwalk, Trump Towers … that sign that says Hollywood? I’ve been right on top of there, me and her on that hill.”

Their marriage wasn’t without heartbreak. They shared in their grief after their grandson was killed in a car accident at age 20. Then in 2010, their daughter Charlotte died of cancer at age 70.

Ruth passed away in 2012, at the age of 92.

“I like to stay busy,” Charles told the Lexington Herald-Leader in 2014. 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.”

No slowing down

On a recent summer day, Charles shuffled past the early lunch crowd at the Ole Bus Stop Diner in downtown Booneville, taking a seat at 6-top across from the cash register. A waitress dropped off a Diet Coke, and Charles – who a friend described as “the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, just like God” – ordered his usual: a tenderloin with mashed potatoes and fried apples.

The restaurant staff has grown accustomed to seeing Charles, partly because he’s eaten there pretty much every day since his wife passed away. But even before Ruth’s death, Charles was known around town for the way he treated people.

“He’s always open, engaging, smiling and looking at people, talking to ‘em,” Shouse said. “I know many people that tell me that they have looked at him over the years as a role model, almost a father figure.”

As he waited for his meal, several diners stopped by to say hello and ask how he’s doing. When people see his red pickup truck – the one adorned with University of Kentucky Wildcats decals – parked outside the restaurant, they’ll stop in to chat.

“I get an awful lot of lovin’ since my wife died,” Charles said.

Recently, a resident asked Charles if he planned to run again. It would be his 16th time running for office.

“I said, ‘Yeah. As long as I can get around, I’m going to,’” Charles said.

There are still water tanks that need to be built and concrete walks that need to be installed at the schools. The city is working with Partnership Housing, Inc. to build seven new homes, affordable ones, for the citizens of Booneville.

“I’m gonna be pretty busy,” he said.