Occasionally, Mayor Brandi Harless is introduced as Paducah’s youngest mayor. When that occurs, she’s quick to correct. “Second youngest,” she says. In 1947, 30-year-old Gene Peak defeated Rex Cornelison to win the title thus beating Brandi by a few years.
By the time he ran for office, Gene was already a household name. A graduate of St. Mary High school and the University of Missouri as well as Loyola, he’d been an announcer for WPAD, a powerhouse radio station not only for the city of Paducah but also for the south. He’d worked his way up to become program manager and the station’s assistant manager.
He was very active in the community, serving as the ruler of the Paducah Elks Club and as the first governor of the Paducah Loyal Order of the Moose. He was also a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club, and the Propeller Club. He served on the Boy Scout Troop 8 committee and as the assistant director of the Kentucky Athletic Board of Control. For his community efforts, he was awarded the Junior Chamber of Commerce Distinguished Service Award in 1947.
His election as mayor was his second foray into local politics. He’d run or the for the office four years earlier but was defeated by 116 votes in the primary. On a very rainy November 4 in 1947, however, his time had come. In spite of the looming, dark clouds that blanketed the region that week, Paducah celebrated the possibilities.
The celebration was short-lived, however. In the same month he took office, Gene was stricken with an illness from which he would not recover. While we do not know the specific malady, we do know it was severe enough to render him bedridden. For the next year and seven months, he would be in and out of the hospital or confined to home. During that time, he came to city hall only twice with the aid of a wheelchair, the last time being in March 1949 to take part in a controversial budget vote.
In July of that year, his battle came to an end. The bright light of youth, ambition, and talent had flickered low for over a year—and now, it was extinguished. Gene left behind his wife and an eight-year-old daughter. He also left behind a city who mourned the loss of an integral part of its identity.
Pierce Lackey, Gene’s boss and owner of WPAD (and also a previous Paducah mayor) said, “I have lost a devoted friend. Having known Gene for most of his life, I came to admire him for his brilliant mind, his keen wit, his sense of humor, and loyalty.”
Edwin J. Paxton wrote, “On the threshold of what promised to be a great career, he has been called to That Other Realm. Gene Peak loved his Paducah. Gene Peak was anxious to serve his Paducah with all his gifts; a rare enthusiasm; a hard, sincere desire to work, a fine personality that charmed all who came in contact with him; a man of vision, he wanted the town to go forward, and he was anxious to give of his all that it might.”
On Monday, July 25, 1949, at 6 AM, Father Albert Thompson administered the Last Rites at St. Francis de Sales. Mayor Gene Peak was then laid to rest in Mt. Carmel cemetery along with the hopes and dreams of his youthful ambition.