Week of January 30, 2006
  Snapshot from the Field

Katie Peden, 1926-2006:
A Bona-Fide Pioneer

The Kentucky Commission on Women commissioned artist Allison Lyne (www.lyneart.com) to paint this portrait of the late Katie Peden.
She blazed new trails and broke down barriers. Katie lived large.

by JACK LYNE, Site Selection Executive Editor of Interactive Publishing
jack.lyne bounce@conway.com

    "Jack, I want you to write my obituary," Katherine Peden thundered through the phone line in 1992. And that's how she began the conversation.
    The comment was classic "Katie": robust and direct. It was the woman's singular way of telling me how much she'd enjoyed Site Selection's April 1992 cover story about her.
    And now she really is gone. A bona-fide trailblazer, Katherine Graham Peden passed away in January at the age of 80. She died in her beloved Kentucky, leaving no immediate survivors.
    So here I am, writing something that, however illogically, I assumed would never be necessary. Oh, I knew she wasn't in great health. But, still, the woman seemed indestructible somehow. A force of nature. Katie, I'm sure, didn't really expect me to write anything when she died. But her remark about my story . . . well, you don't ever forget something like that. So Iím here to give it my best shot.
You've gotta keep your eyes on the ponies: Katie Peden intently watches a race at Louisville's Churchill Downs. Odds are, when the race was done, she went and cashed a winning ticket.

    It helps, I guess, to know at least one thing right off the bat: No run-of-the-mill obit can capture Katie Peden. There's too much to tell. The woman was a pioneer, plain and simple. She made some remarkable history. Katie crossed boundaries that women had never crossed before.
    And once she crossed those borders, she kicked some major butt.
First Female to Head
A State Commerce Department
    Take 1963, for example, when Katie became the first American woman to serve as state commerce commissioner. Skeptics initially grumbled about her appointment. She had no experience, they said; and hell, she was a woman on top of that. Charges of cronyism didn't help. After all, Peden had been the campaign manager for Kentucky Governor-elect Edward Breathitt, a high school classmate.
    Katie soon shut down the doubters. First, she redid her office, getting it painted "a good bold tangerine." Then she redid everything.
    "I didn't know a soul on the Commerce Dept. staff when I arrived," she recollected. Soon enough, though, they surely knew her. As an outsider, Peden had no established alliances to inhibit her. All the better to shake things up, stem to stern. Soon after her arrival, Peden pulled the trigger on a sweeping departmental reorganization. That big bang included taking politics out of the Kentucky Economic Development Commission.
    Next, Peden decided, Kentucky needed cold, hard facts to warm site seekers' hearts. She commissioned a study that yielded a mountain of detail: things like business cost profiles for each of 16 Kentucky regions on 65 separate industries and 400 related products. Decision-making data, really.
    With the strategic pieces now in place, Peden launched a blistering business recruiting crusade. "The Pedenblitz," Business Week admiringly dubbed it. At the end of her four-year term, Kentucky had added 150,000 new non-farm jobs, twice what Breathitt had promised. Unemployment had also been cut in half, while personal income had risen 30 percent. She was an irresistible force; she moved corporate objects.
    American Electric Power Co. (AEP) President Donald Cook, for example, called the Bluegrass State's commerce commissioner "the most persuasive person in the field of industrial development today." A few weeks later, AEP decided to telescope three years of expansion in its Kentucky-based subsidiary into a single year. Similarly John Luke, president of MeadWestvaco Corp. (known then as West Virginia Pulp & Paper) called Peden "a very powerful influence" in his company's decision to bring an US$80-million plant to Kentucky.
    Any more questions about competence?
JFK's Commission on
The Status of Women
    Actually, there were more. Lots more. All women back in those days faced endless knee-jerk niggling about their abilities. Rigid sexist biases ran rampant. Doors weren't just closed; they were practically nailed shut.
    That didn't faze Katie. A tall woman who cut an imposing figure, she just kept moving forward. And the doors, whether they wanted to or not, just kept opening.
    I should briefly pause here in the name of full disclosure: I've always had a sort of home-team bias about Katie. Oh, I didn't actually get to know the woman well until the late 1980s. But I'd followed her since I was a wide-eyed pup; I read all about her rapid rise while growing up in another small Kentucky town (Russellville) some 30 miles (48 km.) away from her adored hometown of Hopkinsville. Consequently, I learned an inordinate amount about her career. And there was a lot of career for this little pup to keep up with.
    In 1963, for example, President John Kennedy appointed her to the ground-breaking President's Commission on the Status of Women. The commission presented its report to JFK a month before he was gunned down in Dallas.
Some friends of Katie: Three U.S. presidents, John F. Kennedy (from left), Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, named Katie Peden to high-level advisory groups.

    "I guess the Kennedy Commission was the basis, really, for the advancement of women in a lot of fields," Katie recollected in 1992. Mind you, she didn't think things had advanced far enough (she rarely did). But she did see ancient prejudices beginning to crumble.
    "[Women's advancement] is sort of hitting the glass ceiling now," she said. "Women still make 75 cents for every dollar men earn.
    "But I think time will take care of that. I think the younger generation of women coming up now will break into the top executive levels. Before this decade is out, we're going to see women CEOs in industry and far more women in politics."
    And that, of course, is exactly what happened.
The Kerner Commission: 'Two
Societies, Separate and Unequal'
    In 1967, history came banging on Katie's door again. (Or was it the other way around?) President Lyndon Johnson appointed her as the lone woman on the 12-member National
Peden was the only woman on the 12-member Kerner Commission, created by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the race riots of 1966-67. Pictured are two scenes from the 1967 riots in Detroit, where 43 people died and $45 million in damage was done.
Advisory Committee on Civil Disorders, commonly known as the Kerner Commission.
    That high-profile panel tackled a thorny issue — race — that still tears at America's soul. The group was charged with investigating the widespread racial disorders that wracked the nation in 1966-67.
    Their analysis produced the Kerner Commission Report. That documentís central finding is one that continues to haunt us. "This is our basic conclusion," said the commission. "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal."
    "It breaks my heart to tell you that we're in worse shape today than we were in '68," Katie said 14 years ago, slowly shaking her great silver-haired head. "We still need to open up our society."
Did Scruples Cripple First
Female Senatorial Nominee?
    History and Katie Peden took another memorable turn on the dance floor in 1969. She decided to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Marlow Cook.
    Katie overwhelmingly won the Democratic primary, carrying 109 of the state's 120 counties. And with that, she became the first female in American history to be nominated for the U.S. Senate.
    She might've well won the general election, too. At least if she hadn't suffered from a political vulnerability now rarer than the dodo bird: a bad case of scruples. How Peden lost, really, probably says more than how most people win.
    First, she refused political advisors' pleas to accept wealthy Democrats' campaign contributions.
    "I knew good and well that if I took their money I would never be my own person," Katie told me, thumping her office desk for emphasis. "Every time a vote came up, one of them would be on the phone holding that contribution over my head. So I told my advisors, 'I may be white-headed, but I'm also hardheaded!' "
    On top of that, state Democratic Party leaders weren't as supportive as they might've been. "They didn't think I had a chance to win, and they kept me from getting adequate financing," she recalled, the memory still rankling her a bit. "They were more interested in putting funds into trying to elect a governor."
    Given those circumstances, campaign funds were slim. Peden resorted to personally bankrolling much of her senatorial run, piling up heavy debt. It took her 10 years to pay it all off.
Refusing to Play the Racist Card
    The George Wallace issue also shadowed Peden's senatorial run.
    The former Alabama governor's presidential campaign was then a disturbing fly in the political ointment. Wallace repeatedly hammered a central theme: bristling hostility toward civil rights legislation.
    His segregationist posturing struck a chord with a sizable slice of America. Wallace, in fact, rang up more than 9 million votes in the 1969 presidential race. He won in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.
    To some of Pedenís advisors, Wallaceís evident electoral clout looked like opportunity lurking. Katie, they suggested, why donít we put your name on the same ballots that Wallaceís campaign workers will pass out at the polls? That right thereís gotta be worth tens of thousands of votes. Peden, though, deeply abhorred Wallaceís supremacist stance. She blasted the idea, immediately dismissing it out of hand.
    Even handicapped by those pesky principles, the woman still almost won. With more than a million votes cast, Peden lost by 30,000.
    She later considered several other runs for office. Ultimately, though, she couldn't stomach the way contemporary politics were going, particularly the escalating costs and mudslinging.
    The latter was another low road Peden refused to travel. She and incumbent Marlow Cook were long-time good friends before their senatorial race. And they never stopped being good friends.
Katie was born and raised in Hopkinsville, Ky., which has about 30,000 people. Pictured above is the Alhambra Theatre, built in 1928 on Main Street and still in business. Peden was later a central player in helping create the Hopkinsville Industrial Park (pictured below), where a street is named for her.
Theater photo: William Overby collection

    "We just refused to use any smear tactics in our Senate race," she told me. We've both said it was the last of the clean campaigns."
    A clean campaign. Imagine that.
Starting Her Own Company
    Leaving politics behind, Katie returned to the private sector.
    She was already armed with a wealth of experience. Before taking the Kentucky Commerce job, she'd spent two prosperous decades in radio station ownership and management. In 1961, in fact, she'd been the national president of the Business and Professional Women's Club.
    Peden's Commerce Dept. work, though, had stirred new interests. In the early 1970s, the onetime Kentucky farm girl formed her own firm, Peden & Associates. That was another thing very few women did back then.
    No matter. Specializing in industrial and community development and brokerage, Peden & Associates fared very well. It was a key player, for example, in recruiting Budd Co.'s $100-million auto-parts manufacturing plant to Shelbyville (near Louisville).
    The success of Peden's business got a huge boost from the large network of skilled site selection players established during her Commerce Dept. days. She often tapped their expertise. Similarly, they tapped her when they were considering Kentucky.
    Even then, though, Peden remained a political force. Jimmy Carter, for example, appointed her in 1978 to the Executive Committee of
Katie Peden stood atop the legendary Churchill Downs for this photo for Site Selection.
the White House Conference on Balanced Growth and Economic Development. Peden also aided a long line of Kentucky governors as an unpaid advisor in crafting economic development strategy.
Living Large
    About now, I can hear what Katie would be telling me: "Shush now. You've already said way too much here."
    Well, almost. I shouldn't leave you, though, with the notion that Katie was all work and no play. To the contrary, she radiated joie de vivre. She lived with gusto.
    One of her recreational passions was golf. She won numerous championships as a young woman, and played on as long as her health allowed.
    She also loved watching the thoroughbreds run from her finish-line box at Churchill Downs. And let me tell you; the woman knew how to play the ponies. She'd whoop every time she picked a winner. She won a lot; she whooped a lot.
    Being a Kentuckian, basketball, too, was a consuming passion. She even had season tickets for both the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville. In hoops-crazy Kentucky, that's tantamount to heresy. But Katie didn't see any contradiction. She loved Bluegrass State basketball, plain and simple. She wanted to watch the best of it. So she did.
    And that, really, typified Katie Peden. She wasn't much concerned about traditional limitations. She always colored outside the lines. Living largely and fully; that's what concerned her. She did it well.
     Oh, I suspect that her manner may've struck some as brusque. But not if you actually knew her. It was just that she lived with a lot of feeling. And without a shred of pretense or insincerity.
    One last thing here about Katie: During my interview, I kept trying to get a tiny glimpse into just what it was that had enabled her to be such a pioneer. It took a while, but I finally got an answer. A supremely matter-of-fact one.
    "Oh, no," she said, shaking her head, "I never intended to be a trailblazer for women. I had no idea of what being a trailblazer would be when I started. I guess it just turned out that way."
    Well, not really, ma'am. You made it turn out that way, Katie. Hail and farewell.

©2006 Conway Data, Inc. All rights reserved. Data is from many sources and is not warranted to be accurate or current.