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 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. But, 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 1885, Governor William O'Connell Bradley commissioned the first honorary Kentucky colonels as an honor award bestowed upon citizens for their noteworthiness. In 1890, a book was published by Opie Read, called 'A Kentucky Colonel' evolved a new public perception of what a Kentucky colonel was, posing himself more as a refined 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 Southland, adding to the allure of the somewhat mythical life of the most distinguished Kentucky colonels.
In the late 1920s into early 1930s, Kentucky colonels began to come together to form sociopolitical, fraternal organizations, founding the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels in 1932 by Gov. Ruby Laffoon.
Prior to 1932, about 1,000 people had received commissions as Kentucky colonels. 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, commissioned in 1935. 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 1939 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 (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 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", because the selection process is intended to identify only those with a reputation for high moral standards and a record of "good works" accomplishments. An individual can only become a Kentucky colonel if nominated by an active colonel. An active colonel is a colonel who contributes to the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels annually. At least 85,000 people have received the title.
Kentucky colonel organizations
Today there are a number of fraternal and social organizations located internationally 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 to be created. There are currently fellowships in Hong Kong, Tokyo, London, Vienna and Toronto.
One of those organizations is Kentucky Colonels International which is incorporated under Globcal International as a non-state social organization on Facebook that list and connect various organizations, chapters, and online groups that have been developed in social networking. Such groups have sometimes teamed together to support 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.
The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels
The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels is the largest and most well-known association of Kentucky colonels; the organization maintains an impressive membership list. After a person receives a commission, they automatically become a lifetime member of The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels located in Louisville, Kentucky. They are invited to donate and participate in charitable efforts. 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 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 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 1936, New York advertising agency owner Colonel Arthur Kudner wrote a toast to Kentucky colonels. 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.
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.
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