In 1958, The Rifleman television show debuted along with 77 Sunset Strip. The challenge for San Angelo was that not many could watch those shows with a good picture unless the signal was piped into town. E.C. Gunter owned the San Angelo dealership for RCA, Zenith and Magnavox television sets and understood that if his clientele had more and better viewing options, he could sell more television sets.
Luckily, his son, Ken Gunter, had just returned home after earning a degree from The Rice Institute in Houston (now Rice University). Ken loved tinkering with electronics and father and son embarked on a journey to build the first cable TV company in San Angelo.
By 1961, the Gunters’ “International CableVision” was publically traded on Wall Street. With money, innovation accelerated, where Gunter was instrumental in creating the “live” satellite feeds common on cable TV today. It started with events such as the “Thrilla in Manila”, a live satellite broadcast of the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier boxing match. Gunter helped spearhead original programming to cable, including HBO, CNN, and C-Span. C-Span’s tech center is named after him.
Gunter’s investments of money, time, and audience from his cable systems turned cable TV into an entertainment delivery industry, not just a way to catch a better signal and picture quality off of the networks.
Pressed to move his companies and residence to the east coast, Gunter stayed true to San Angelo. When asked to leave, his common reply, according to his wife Brenda, was “Why should I? This is my home”.
Gunter gave back to the community with passion. Rick Smith at the San Angelo Standard-Times said that Gunter “saved” the old downtown district here. Downtowns, it is said, are the heart and soul of any community. It bonds a diverse crowd of people in a city together. When one imagines any city, he or she usually has a vision of the skyline, most of which is formed in the downtown district.
In the late 1970s, however, San Angelo's downtown was failing, as were many small town centers across America. The area was becoming a ghost of its former self as buildings fell and crime rose.
Gunter put his fortune to use by restoring most of East Concho Avenue. The area today is a thriving retail district with character. Upon the successes Gunter had with the Concho Avenue renovations, others followed in his footsteps. Today, downtown San Angelo is one of the most desirable locations in the country, and new development is sprawling in all directions from Gunter’s East Concho nucleus. One only has to sit with Downtown San Angelo Inc.’s director Del Velasquez for an hour and listen to the phone calls pouring in from potential investors all over the country to understand the attraction that San Angelo has become.
Had Gunter not had the love of history, the appreciation of architectural arts, and the vision to use his own money towards those ends, San Angelo wouldn’t be sitting in the catbird seat like it is today.
Dan Carroll was Ken Gunter’s pilot since the early 2000s. He recalls the first time he met Gunter, who was also an accomplished pilot.
Carroll was the manager of Lajitas, a small town that became a tourist development south of Big Bend National Park, owned by a multi-millionaire. One day, Carroll recalls a Beechcraft Bonanza landing at Lajita’s short, 4,500-foot runway and taxiing straight into the only hanger on the uncontrolled airfield.
Carroll confronted the Bonanza’s pilot, Ken Gunter, explaining that the hanger was private property, and he couldn’t park there.
After squabbling with Gunter for a bit, Gunter relented, only to allow Carroll to park the Lajitas Mooney plane next to his illegally parked Bonanza inside the hanger. “I think there’d be room for both of us if you help me push my plane closer to the back,” Carroll recalls Gunter suggesting. Carroll was amazed at Gunter’s audacity until he found out that Gunter had flown into Lajitas to meet Carroll’s boss. Carroll said their professional relationship grew from that point on.
By 2001, Carroll moved to San Angelo at Gunter’s urging and, as a professional pilot, flew with Gunter all over the state and country.
“Gunter was a very good pilot,” Carroll explained. “And he was a very safe pilot. He never took unnecessary risks.” Carroll said. Carroll said that his job was usually to ride shotgun with Gunter, acting as his copilot. “Ken wouldn’t fly as much as I did, so he felt he needed someone there more current in case the weather got bad, and he wasn’t as current on instrument approaches,” Carroll said.
Gunter earned the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for 50 years as a licensed and medically qualified pilot who did not have a major mishap during that tenure. Carroll said Gunter continued to fly up until about two years ago. “He said [about flying at the end], ‘You know, it just doesn’t have the luster that it used too’.’’ Gunter sold his Bonanza and never flew again.
Farewell With Friends, Family and Acquaintances
Tuesday evening, Ken’s widow, Brenda Gunter held a party to celebrate her husband’s life at Miss Hattie’s Restaurant on East Concho Avenue, the centerpiece of the Gunter’s rehabilitation efforts of San Angelo’s downtown. The party's announcement was Gunter’s obituary. Hundreds of San Angeloans, friends and family from all over the country came to pay their respects, sample delicious food, and drinks.
“You’re very much the reason Kenneth Gunter chose to live in San Angelo for all of his life. He had many opportunities to go and live and do something else, and he always said ‘why would I when all of my friends are in San Angelo, and San Angelo was where I was born. So why would I ever want to leave?’” Brenda Gunter said.
“Tonight you’ve given him everything that he wanted back from this community. That is your time and your part of this celebration. Thank you everyone who came tonight. Thank you for being a part of this celebration and thank you so much for being a part of his life,” she said.
Kenneth Gunter, Sept. 25, 1933 – July 21, 2014, was interred in Fairmont Cemetery after last night’s celebration.