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 themselves, and the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels was established in 1932.
Prior to 1932, only about 1,000 had received commissions as Kentucky colonels. Governor Ruby Laffoon drastically increased the number of colonels by issuing more than 5,000 commissions during his time in office. 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 each year 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 that 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, enough 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 inch by 15 inch size to 8.5 inch by 14 inch. The wording remained the same on the certificate; however, the traditional gold seal and ribbon were be replaced with a state seal that is slightly embossed. The reduced materials needed to create the new certificates were expected to save $5,000; however, the substantial savings was in the labor 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 moved forward with the changes.
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.
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 founder and mascot of fast-food restaurant chain KFC, Colonel Sanders, comes from his status as a Kentucky colonel. A number of sports teams in Kentucky, especially in its largest city Louisville, have been known as the Louisville Colonels or the Kentucky Colonels.
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- Mission Statement of The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (access date May 2011).
- Porter, Marion. Howdy Colonel. 1947. p8.
- Carl Edwin Lindgren. Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (February/March 2001). Il Mondo del Cavaliere, Vol. I, No. 1, p. 14. ISSN 1592-1425.