Kentucky colonel is the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Commissions for Kentucky colonels are given by the Governor and the Secretary of State to individuals in recognition of noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to a community, state or the nation. The sitting governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky bestows the honor of a colonel's Commission, by issuance of letters patent.
The title "Kentucky colonel" was first formalized in 1813, but was in informal use before that to refer to people with honored reputations, often related to military service in the American Revolution. It was often associated with landowners respected in their communities. When the Kentucky Militia was deactivated following the War of 1812, Governor Isaac Shelby commissioned Charles Stewart Todd, one of his officers in the campaign, as an aide-de-camp on the Governor's Staff with the rank and grade of colonel. (Todd married Shelby's youngest daughter two years later.)
Early colonels served military roles in the state. In the latter part of the 19th century, the position took on a more ceremonial function. Colonels in uniform attended functions at the Governor's mansion and stood as symbolic guards at state events. By the late 19th century, the title had become more of an honorary one. But, since commissioned Kentucky colonels are considered members of the Governor's Staff as his honorary aides-de-camp, all are entitled to the style of "Honorable" as indicated on their commission certificates. This is rarely used, however; Kentucky colonels are usually just referred to and addressed as "Colonel". In writing, usage is Kentucky colonel when the term is not being used as a specific title for an individual.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, existing Kentucky colonels began to organize as a group. The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels was established in 1932.
Prior to 1932, only about 1,000 men had received commissions as Kentucky colonels. Governor Ruby Laffoon, governor from 1931 to 1935, dramatically increased the number of colonels by issuing more than 5,000 commissions. When Governor Happy Chandler took office in 1935, he took a much different view on the distinction of a Kentucky colonel commission. Governor Chandler issued only about a dozen new commissions annually at Derby Day. Governor Keen Johnson followed Governor Chandler's lead during his time in office from 1935 to 1943, commissioning only those select individuals who were deemed to have exhibited noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to a community, state or the nation. The subsequent governors, however, were typically much more liberal in issuing Kentucky colonel commissions.
Under Governor Steve Beshear in 2008, so many commissions were being issued that state budget cuts led to a major change in the design of the commission certificate. The certificate was downsized from the 10 by 15-inch size to 8.5-inch by 14 inches. The wording remained the same on the certificate; however, the traditional gold seal and ribbon were replaced with a state seal that is embossed. Reducing materials for the new certificates was expected to save $5,000; the substantial savings was for excluding the labor formerly needed to apply the gold seal and ribbon by hand. The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels objected to the changes in the certificates, and the order offered to pay $5,000 a year to keep the traditional certificates. Due to the substantial savings in labor to produce the new certificates, the Secretary of State's office proceeded with the changes.
The honor has been given to a broad variety of notable people – including various celebrities, artists, writers, athletes, performers, businesspersons, U.S. and foreign politicians, and members of foreign royal families – some of whom have no obvious connection to Kentucky. It has also been bestowed upon various people who are not generally considered especially notable – they have been people from "all walks of life", although the selection process is intended to identify only those with a reputation for high moral standards and a record of "good works" accomplishments.
The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels
After a person receives a commission, he or she is invited to join "The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels", which is an independent, non-profit charitable organization formally founded in 1932. The Governor of Kentucky serves as the "Commander-in-chief" of the Honorable Order, and its board of trustees serves on a volunteer basis. The stated mission of this organization is to aid and promote the Commonwealth of Kentucky and its citizens. The organization raises money to support Kentucky charities and educational organizations, and to conduct other works that will help the citizens of Kentucky. The organization's charitable efforts have also sometimes extended past the borders of the Commonwealth, such as contributing to natural disaster relief in other states. By 1979, annual donations exceeded $500,000, and by 1992, they exceeded $1 million.
An early example of charitable activities organized by the Honorable Order was their relief efforts for the Ohio River flood of 1937, which had a devastating effect on northern Kentucky and other states along the Ohio River. Colonels Fred Astair, Eddie Cantor, and Irving Mills were especially instrumental in fund-raising for the project.
Some Kentucky colonel groups have emerged in social media. One of them is Kentucky Colonels International on Facebook where they list and connect various organizations, chapters, and groups that have been developed in social networking. Such groups have sometimes teamed together to support causes like the tornado disaster relief in Kentucky in 2012 and in Oklahoma in 2013, resulting in individuals spreading social media messages using Facebook diplomacy to generate goodwill.
In 1936 New York advertising agency owner Colonel Arthur Kudner wrote a toast to the Kentucky colonel. The toast was quickly adopted by the Honorable Order, and it was widely published for use by colonels. The toast has since been ceremoniously presented at each of the Kentucky Colonels' Derby Eve Banquets.
I give you a man dedicated to the good things of life, to the gentle, the heartfelt things, to good living, and to the kindly rites with which it is surrounded. In all the clash of a plangent world he holds firm to his ideal – a gracious existence in that country of content 'where slower clocks strike happier hours.' He stands in spirit on a tall-columned veranda, a hospitable glass in his hand, and he looks over the good and fertile earth, over ripening fields, over meadows of rippling bluegrass. The rounded note of a horn floats through the fragrant stillness. Afar, the sleek and shining flanks of a thoroughbred catch the bright sun. The broad door, open wide with welcome... the slow, soft-spoken word... the familiar step of friendship... all of this is his life and it is good. He brings fair judgment to sterner things. He is proud in the traditions of his country, in ways that are settled and true. In a trying world darkened by hate and misunderstanding, he is a symbol of those virtues in which men find gallant faith and of the good men might distill from life. Here he stands, then. In the finest sense, an epicure... a patriot... a man. Gentlemen, I give you, the Kentucky Colonel.
— Colonel Arthur Kudner
The title of the founder and symbolic icon of the fast-food restaurant chain KFC, Colonel Harlan Sanders, comes from his status as a Kentucky colonel. He became so well known that he was sometimes referred to simply as "The Colonel".
Another example of the use of the Kentucky colonel honorific title in business marketing is seen in the ongoing historic association between Kentucky and bourbon whiskey production. As of 2013, approximately 95% of all bourbon is produced in Kentucky, and the state has 4.9 million barrels of bourbon that are currently aging – a figure that exceeds the state population. The historic distiller James B. Beam is referred to as "Colonel James B. Beam" for the marketing of the Jim Beam brand (the largest-selling brand of bourbon) and the Sazerac Company similarly refers to the distiller Albert Blanton as "Colonel Blanton" for their marketing of the Blanton's brand. In both cases, the "Colonel" title refers to being a Kentucky colonel. A brand of Kentucky bourbon called Kentucky Colonel was produced in the 1980s, and at least two current brands of Kentucky bourbon have the word "Colonel" in their name – specifically, the Colonel E. H. Taylor, Jr. and Colonel Lee bourbon brands.
A number of sports teams in Kentucky, especially in Louisville, its largest city, have been known as the Kentucky Colonels or the Louisville Colonels. These include the Kentucky Colonels professional basketball team of 1967–1976, the Kentucky Colonels professional basketball team of 2004, and the Eastern Kentucky Colonels and Lady Colonels athletic teams of Eastern Kentucky University.
A popular bluegrass band of the 1960s was also called the Kentucky Colonels. It included Clarence White, who was later with The Byrds and who also worked extensively as a session musician with various highly prominent performers.
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