[Audio] Gene Katterjohn, Retired Paducah Businessman, Reflects on Family and Life

Aug 31, 2015

Gene Katterjohn

About this time last year, Dr. Jim Gould told WKMS that Gene Katterjohn of Paducah had a good story and arranged for Kate Lochte to chat at the Katterjohn’s home one stormy afternoon. The Katterjohns are among the city’s many multi-generational community-minded families. Back in 1919 a Katterjohn won the mayoral race by 86 votes. 

When did the Katterjohns get to Paducah?

That would be my great grandfather FW Katterjohn who came from Prussia, that’s Germany now. And as to why he came I’ve never quite known. He visited in Cincinnati because he had some relatives there, but then mainly he stayed in Redwing, Minnesota, but how he came to know the brick trade, I’ll never know, but he started Katterjohn Brick Company in about 1870 right after the Civil War. He lived where Katterjohn Drug Store is, that was a farm, and the mud came from the hollow behind it….practically every building from 1875 to 1910 had Katterjohn brick in it. Now a lot of people don’t know about the South Side. I’ve never known why my father picked that location. He said that the Union Station was close and the trolley line passed by the drug store and people would stop and buy supplies before they got on the train. 

So your great grandfather was a brick man, your father a pharmacist, and you were too.

That’s right, there was my father, my brother, me, my sister-in law, I think that’s about it…Kyle, third generation in running that drug store right now. It’s close to one hundred years old. 

That’s quite an accomplishment for a family.

Yes it is, for just one family, we’re proud of it.

Mr. Katterjohn is a natty dresser with bright eyes, a ready wit, and a winning smile. Pharmacist, pilot and military aviator, sales rep, cleaning business innovator and banker, all rolled into one. His father-in-law Horace Owen invited to get into his business, Owen Cleaners. Despite the fact he didn’t know anything about dry-cleaning, Mr. Katterjohn prospered with it, and now Katterjohn’s daughter and son-in-law, Carolyn and David Perry own and operate the Paducah institution.

At one time I was one of the largest coin-operated operators in the United States. The first one we put in we used Home Dry Port, coin operated type. We wore those out in less than two years. We were busy. So my father-in-law saw an ad, “Stainless Steel Washer built in Sweden.” He told me “order one of those washers.” And we put it in our regular commercial laundry and we saw it was a fine machine. It cost about at that point about $900 to $1,000 each when you could buy a regular washer for about $150. So people said, “You’re crazy,” but they were good machines and they did a good job. And they lasted a long time and one time I had 6 stores with about 400 washers and 300 to 400 dryers.

Who were the people who fixed them? That must have been a big job.

It was a big job. There were two folks. They lived outside of Smithland, Land Between the Lakes folks, and they good, practical people. They weren’t electrical engineers or anything. But they knew how to fix things when they got broken. I said “quit using the barbed wire and buy a new part. “ Oh, we got along fine. At one time I had a big parts business and shipped parts all over the United States. And then I formed another company that actually built coin laundries under the name Laun-All Equipment Company and I had it trademarked. And I also invented a thing that made a dryer more efficient, called a Laun-All pre-heater. You see this is true of the home but in a commercial thing it’s more dramatic. You have a lot of heat to heat the clothes and get the water out of them and dry them and it all goes out in the air. The secret is you want to use the heat but not the air. So we scavenged off the heat and to then pre-heated the air coming into the dryer using the exhaust heat. And I had a patent on that. And on every one of them they put a plaque.

Do you know Dr. Johnson in Paducah? He’s a fellow about my age and one time his wife called me and said “Gene, David (one of their sons) has been using a coin laundry and looked in the back and it said Laun-All Preheater, Herman Katterjohn, Paducah, Kentucky, and I said, “That’s me.”

Mr. Katterjohn’s service with the Paducah Bank board started in the early eighties. He was also running the cleaners and being invited to participate in national industry groups as well as the American board of a large global British dry-cleaning company, traveling to London and Cincinnati regularly for meetings.

Who were your buddies in business, coming up at the same time?

Irv Bright was a big one. He was in Bright’s Clothes Store. Really Mr. Fred Nagle was a close friend of mine, president of Citizen’s Bank. And they’re the one that financed Owen Cleaners to do what they wanted to. At that time I was on the Paducah Bank Board, so when they made me Chairman of the Board of the Bank after a few months I went to see Fred. And I said, “ Fred, I hate to do it, because you loaned us the money to get Owen Cleaner started and I never had any problems.” And he said, “well, we didn’t have any problems because you always paid us back.” I said, “Well, I tried to and I did, but Fred I’m Chairman of the Board now and it looks kind of funny to have one of my main accounts with you .” He started laughing. He said “I wondered when you’d realize it.”

I’ll tell you what I’m the most proud of being involved. And it involves the Bank. The Bank took on a project of redeveloping a part of town that was so terrible. It was a place to buy drugs. The houses were in terrible shape. But the Paducah Bank went in there, and supported these people buying these old houses and making them loans to dress those houses up, to develop even more than that. People came and built some buildings and they converted what was a terrible part of town to a wonderful part of town, LowerTown.

Okay, number two “proud of”?

You have to have lived here all your life to realize, Paducah’s a little town in west Kentucky. Who ever heard of Paducah? Well now, people know about Paducah, and that’s partly due to I-24, but the next part of it is the development, primarily of franchises, in this whole area including Murray, I think, has really picked up this part of the state. 

The level of education in west Kentucky has always bothered me. And its improving, improving and improving. Now they have Murray’s presence in Paducah which I’m real proud of and I hope Murray’s proud of it, too. 

It might not have turned out this way for Katterjohn, as his friends call him. After high school he had a commission to West Point, but an eye test nixed that. Even so the Army took him for World War II after he graduated from Purdue University. First an artillerist, he volunteered for pilot training as a forward observer. Although he did not see combat duty then, as a Reservist, he was called up during the Korean war, flying just two and a half months before being called home for his daughter’s birth.

I flew in Korea during combat, and so I got a couple of air medals, but that doesn’t mean anything as far as I’m concerned. To have been over there, under those circumstances, and to have come back home as you said, really I have had a charmed life.”

In 2020 Owen Cleaners will reach the century mark about the same time Gene Katterjohn does. When Dr. Jim Gould said Katterjohn has a good story, he was right… a story that’s part of Paducah’s success.