|Kentucky Colonel Commission|
Historic Coat of Arms 1876
|Awarded for||Recognition of good deed, contribution to state prosperity, community service, or noteworthy action performed by an individual.|
|Sponsored by||Commonwealth of Kentucky|
Secretary of State
|Reward(s)||Letters patent, Commission (document), recognition as part of the state's order of merit, and lifetime use of the honorary title Col. or Kentucky Colonel.|
|Last awarded||Ongoing (Active)|
|Benefits||Recipients are recognized with the 'honorable title' of Colonel and implicitly become part of the state's voluntary goodwill ambassador corps.|
|Website||State of Kentucky|
Kentucky Colonel is the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and one of a number of honorary titles of Colonel conferred by U.S. states. Commissions for Kentucky colonels are given by the governor and the secretary of state to individuals in recognition of noteworthy accomplishments, contributions to Kentucky society, remarkable deeds, and outstanding service to a community, state, or the nation. The Governor of Kentucky bestows the honor of a colonel's commission, by issuance of letters patent.
The title "Kentucky Colonel" was formalized in 1813, but it was previously used informally to refer to people with honored reputations, often related to military service in the American Revolution. It was also 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.
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. Since commissioned Kentucky colonels are considered honorary aides-de-camp to the Governor and members of his staff, 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 1895, Governor William O'Connell Bradley commissioned the first honorary Kentucky colonels as an award of merit bestowed upon citizens for their individual contributions to the state, good deeds, and noteworthy actions. In 1890, a book was published by Opie Read, called 'A Kentucky Colonel' which evolved a new public perception of what a Kentucky colonel was, posing himself more as a refined, well-mannered southern gentleman, rather than a figure in the Kentucky militia. This view was further established by Zoe Anderson Norris with a series of twelve stories published in The Sun (New York) in 1905 describing scenes and incidents in a Kentucky Colonel's life in the South, adding to the allure of the somewhat mythical life of the most distinguished Kentucky colonels.
At the beginning of the 20th century into early 1930s, Kentucky colonels began to come together to form sociopolitical, charitable, and fraternal organizations. By far the largest and most widely known of these is the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (HOKC), which was founded in 1932 by Gov. Ruby Laffoon.
Prior to 1932, only about 1,000 people had received commissions as Kentucky colonels from Kentucky's governors. Governor Ruby Laffoon, in office from 1931 to 1935, dramatically increased the number of colonels by issuing more than 5,000 commissions; one of the most famous of these was restaurateur Harland Sanders, who was commissioned by Laffoon in 1935. When Governor Albert Benjamin Chandler (better known as 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, on Derby Day. Governor Keen Johnson followed Governor Chandler's lead during his time in office from 1939 to 1943, commissioning only those select individuals who were deemed to have exhibited exceptionally noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to a community, state or the nation. The subsequent governors, however, have typically been 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, as the governor was issuing as many as 16,500 colonelships per year. The certificate was downsized from the 10-by-15-inch (25 by 38 cm) size to 8.5 by 14 inches (22 by 36 cm). 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 HOKC objected to the changes in the certificates, and it 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. Russ Marlowe, a 70-year-old Bardstown Kentucky colonel, estimated that he had personally nominated about 500 recipients (mostly military veterans) and that none of his nominations had ever been turned down. John Carbone, a man from Philadelphia who later became a humorist in Kentucky, said that shortly after moving to the state in 1995, he struck up a casual conversation with a stranger while standing in line at a muffin shop, and was soon surprised to receive a Kentucky colonel certificate in the mail, as the man he had spoken with had been a member of the governor's staff and had submitted his name for the award. In a 2008 news article on the subject, a reporter said that in preparation for writing the article they had asked some friends and family if they knew anyone who was a Kentucky colonel and was surprised to find that at least a dozen of the people they asked were colonels themselves, and quipped that although they were not yet a Kentucky colonel, "sometimes it seems like everybody else is".
In 2016, Governor Matt Bevin briefly suspended the program to conduct a review of the requirements for receiving the title and then changed the nomination process so that "only active members of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels" were allowed to make recommendations for the honor. Up to that point in time, the longstanding practice had been that recommendations could be submitted by anyone who held the title, without any requirement for donations or membership in any particular organization, and at least 85,000 people had received the title. This number is likely to be a very low estimate, as the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels said in 2008 that it had 103,700 members that it considered "active" in their organization, and that they had no idea how many additional Kentucky colonels there were that were not part of their organization.
In 2019, the unincorporated fraternal membership organization Kentucky Colonels International raised concerns over the changes instituted by Governor Bevin, saying that the commission is a lifetime appointment as an honorary award and should not require colonels to donate annually to a particular organization in order to make nominations and retain their status or privileges. Sherry Crose, executive director of the HOKC, confirmed that there was a donation component to the nomination process under Governor Bevin, but said the HOKC does not control the criteria for the nomination process, which is a matter under the discretion of the sitting governor. She said "The entire nomination process is handled by the governor. We have no say in how it's done."
The nomination process then changed again under Governor Andy Beshear (who entered office in 2019 and is the son of the former Governor Steve Beshear). Governor Andy Beshear not only removed the HOKC membership donation requirement, but also removed the requirement that the nominators be among those previously designated as Kentucky Colonels. Beshear began allowing nominations to be submitted by anyone among the general public through a website form.
Although there are no specific duties required of those to whom the title is granted, Kentucky colonels often serve the Commonwealth of Kentucky as informal goodwill ambassadors for promoting the traditions, culture, and customs of the state.
The honor has been given to a broad variety of notable people – including various celebrities, artists, writers, athletes, performers, business people, US 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".
Under the current process established by Governor Andy Beshear, nominations for the honor can be submitted by anyone, and the nomination form solicits information about "any active or previous service in a charitable organization or community service and/or any military service", without requiring an affiliation with (or donation) to any particular organization.
Kentucky colonel organizations
Today there are a number of charitable, fraternal, and social organizations around the world that are either dedicated to, show deference to, or provide fellowship to Kentucky colonels. The social formation of these organizations created by those who have received the title has been facilitated by the use of social media allowing new fellowships and chapters to be created. There are currently organized fellowships (civil societies) located in the United Kingdom, Philadelphia, New York, Switzerland, Spain, Toronto, Germany, and several other places. Such groups have sometimes teamed together to support humanitarian causes like tornado disaster relief in Kentucky in 2012 and in Oklahoma in 2013. This has resulted in individuals spreading social media messages using Facebook diplomacy to generate goodwill towards the state of Kentucky and further recognition of the honorary title.
Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels
The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (HOKC) is the largest and most well-known organization of Kentucky colonels. After a person receives a commission, they automatically become an honorary lifetime member of organization, which is headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky. Recipients of Kentucky colonel commissions are invited to donate and participate in the HOKC's charitable efforts throughout the state. The Governor of Kentucky serves as the "Commander-in-Chief" of the Honorable Order, and its board of trustees recognized as its 'Generals' serve on a volunteer basis. The mission of the organization is to aid and promote the Commonwealth of Kentucky and its citizens. The organization raises money to support Kentucky charities, educational organizations, and to conduct other good 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 neighboring states. By 1979, annual donations exceeded $500,000, and by 1992, they exceeded $1 million. In 2019 the organization made grants to 265 organizations in the state in excess of 2.1 million dollars.
An early example of charitable activities organized by the charitable organization was 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 Astaire, Eddie Cantor, and Irving Mills were especially instrumental in fund-raising for this project.
In addition to its direct charity work known as its Good Works Program, the HOKC organizes special events such as a Homecoming Weekend and events celebrating the Kentucky Derby, and sells Kentucky colonel-themed commemorative merchandise such as apparel and drinkware bearing its Kentucky Colonel Shield logo and the Great Seal of the HOKC. HOKC special events often celebrate features of Kentucky culture, such as bourbon whiskey, horse farms, horse racing, and the local museums, restaurants and tourism attractions, as well as promoting the Good Works Program.
In 2008, a spokesman for the HOKC said the organization currently had 103,700 members that it considered "active" in their organization, and that they included people from every state and 62 foreign countries, with 40–45% of them being women and only one third of them being within Kentucky. Colonels are not required to officially join the HOKC, and he further said "We don't have a clue as to how many Colonels are out there."
Kentucky Colonel Foundation
Another organization for Kentucky colonels is the Kentucky Colonel Foundation which was a part of Globcal International until January 2020 when it became an independent organization called Kentucky Colonels International (KCI). The foundation is a membership organization that was originally formed in 1998 and was active online until 2001. In 2009, the organization reappeared on Facebook as a non-state decentralized civil society organization which lists, networks, promotes and connects various organizations, international chapters, and online groups that have been developed and identified in the sphere of the Internet and the social media. In January 2020, KCI incorporated itself as an assumed name corporation of Ecology Crossroads (a Kentucky nonprofit), to provide online membership and support services to Kentucky colonels. By February, they had set-up a commission of nine Kentucky colonels charged with the task of reorganizing the development as a brotherhood and fellowship of Kentucky colonels operating as a membership organization. Their commission includes some of the original members of KCI, including the American folk musician J.D. Wilkes of Paducah, Kentucky. The organization is decentralized using the Internet, has a website, blog, social media groups, and maintains a mailing address in Richmond, Kentucky. According to their blog, the organization's existence and formation has been challenged by the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels in 2001, 2016 and in 2019.
In February 2020 The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, Inc. filed a trademark infringement lawsuit in the US Federal Court of the Western District of Kentucky against Kentucky Colonels International, among others, after registering the trademark "Kentucky Colonels" with the USPTO for associations and social clubs. As the defendant in the lawsuit, Kentucky Colonels International asserted that "Kentucky Colonels" should be considered in the public domain for use in their organization name. Kentucky Colonels International then tried to remove itself from the jurisdiction of Kentucky, changed its name to the Kentucky Colonel Foundation, and changed its website domain name.
In 1936, New York advertising agency owner Colonel Arthur Kudner wrote a toast to Kentucky colonels. The toast was quickly adopted by the HOKC, and it was widely promoted and 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.
Those who have received the commission of the Kentucky Colonel have often used the title to promote their business or ideals while promoting the state and its traditions, resulting in the honor being a well-recognized part of Kentucky culture.
The title of the founder and symbolic icon of the fast-food restaurant chain KFC, Colonel Harland 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 use of the Kentucky colonel title in business marketing is seen in the ongoing historic association between Kentucky and bourbon whiskey production. As of 2013, approximately 95 percent of all bourbon was produced in Kentucky, and the state had 4.9 million barrels of bourbon in the process of aging. 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). 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, the Colonel E. H. Taylor 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 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.
- Colonel (title)
- Titles of honor
- Goodwill ambassador
- Nebraska Admiral
- Arkansas Traveler
- Rhode Island Commodore
- Order of the Long Leaf Pine (of North Carolina)
- Order of the Palmetto (of South Carolina)
- Sagamore of the Wabash (of Indiana)
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