In the 1970s, Dolly McNutt, Paducah’s first female mayor, was a frequent customer at The New Woman, a beauty salon owned by Gayle Kaler. Roughly 40 years later, Kaler has changed the name of her business to Chantillies and has added a new activity to her busy schedule—McNutt’s old job. But before Kaler takes office in January, Casey Northcutt reports on how she went from styling a mayor’s hair to becoming one.
Tuesday at the City Commission meeting in Paducah, Commissioner Gayle Kaler reads an ordinance while wearing a dark gray pants suit. It’s flattering and professional and the same suit she wore earlier that day to cut hair at her salon, Chantillies. A hairdresser, business owner, wife and public servant, Kaler didn’t have time to change.
Once she begins her new job as mayor, Kaler will add $23,500 to her annual income and a lot more activities to her daily routine. She says even though the job is part-time, she’ll be working several Sundays.
“I’ve got a lot of experience with juggling my schedule," Kaler said. "I come in at 7 in the morning, so, you know, the day at City Hall doesn’t really get started until 9, and I work late at night, so I can work it all out.”
This dedicated woman has spent the better part of five decades serving the people of Paducah. She says she has cut residents’ hair for 47 years, 42 of which she owned her own salon. She has served as President of the Lower Town Renaissance Association and, at one time, she became involved with the artist relocation program. Six years ago, she became a city commissioner.
“I’ve always loved Paducah. I mean, I feel like I grew up here, I’ve been here for so much of my life,” Kaler said.
Kaler grew up in Carrsville, Ky., a city in Livingston County. She was born to Hershel and Ruby McDonald, who moved to Paducah for a short time when she was a child before returning to Livingston. Kaler didn’t move back to Paducah until after she had already graduated high school and married. Once settled, she says she enrolled at Fitzpatrick’s beauty school.
“I started out working on 21st street at the Glamour Cottage," Kaler said. "At the time, when I graduated high school, it seemed impossible to go to college. My parents were struggling, so I did the next best thing. I went to beauty school.”
That job at the Glamour Cottage soon inspired Kaler to establish her own salon, which she dubbed The New Woman. Over time, the entrepreneur moved her shop to various locations around Paducah, and about 25 years ago, she reinvented her business as Chantillies, a small beauty salon decorated in local paintings.
“My salon has art all over from the artists here in Paducah," Kaler said. "The piece behind me here is Charlotte Erwin, and she painted the seat covers that we’re sitting on.”
But, as Kaler built her business and garnered enough goodwill to earn a position in city government, she also dealt with hardship. Nearly a decade ago, doctors diagnosed Kaler with ductal carcinoma—or breast cancer. After chemotherapy and radiation as well as a lumpectomy, the cancer went into remission and Kaler ran for Paducah City Commission in 2004. She lost. However, the city did elect her in 2006. But by then the cancer had come back. She had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction.
Through it all, Kaler kept working.
“I never missed a day of work with my breast cancer treatment and radiation," Kaler said. "Probably of all the things that have happened to me in my life, that has shaped me more than anything.”
And that anything includes becoming Paducah’s next mayor. Through her new position, Kaler hopes to continue growing the city—especially in the areas of art and business. She wants to establish a Mayor’s Book Club, which will encourage children to read, as well as a Mayor’s Art Club, which will feature work from local artists in City Hall.
An increase in Paducah’s creative culture, she believes, will encourage young people to stay in the area—as will an increase in jobs and in amenities like the new dog park. Kaler also wants to alter language in certain city ordinances and to introduce a resolution to the city commission in support of a statewide smoking ban.
“I wanted to make my city, where I live, a good place—continue that work that the mayors of the city of Paducah have done to make Paducah a great place to live," Kaler said. "I just wanted to continue that legacy.”
In between mayoral duties, Kaler will continue to cut, dry and style hair for residents—possibly without even changing her suit. She will provide two services for Paducah—beautification of the city and of its people.