I’m a Kentucky Colonel, you’re a Kentucky Colonel, he’s a Kentucky Colonel, she’s a Kentucky Colonel. What? You say you’re not a Kentucky Colonel?
Actually, neither am I. But sometimes it seems like everybody else is.
This spring, for a story assignment, I contacted family and friends to ask them if they could provide the names of any Colonels I could talk to. Shockingly, at least a dozen of them were Colonels themselves. People I knew.
Among them: an accomplished poet who wears strange clothes, a deacon at my church, a newspaperman, a fellow member of a writers group, my haircutter Mary, and my sister-in law Mary “Deedy” Jones. Plus her son.
It’s “the highest honor awarded by the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” according to Secretary of State Trey Grayson’s Web site. Given to “individuals in recognition of noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to a community, state or nation.”
About 16,500 Colonels commissions are issued each year.
Glen Bastin is “senior ambassador,” CEO and spokesperson for the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels charitable nonprofit group based in Louisville. He said the number of “active” Colonels in his organization currently totals 103,700, made up of members from every state and 62 foreign countries.
Any commissioned Kentucky Colonel is welcome but doesn’t have to officially join the honorable order, Bastin said. For that reason, “We don’t have a clue as to how many Colonels are out there.” Forty to 45 percent of the Order’s membership is made up of women. Surprisingly, only a third of the organization’s members are Kentuckians. Active Order members are financial contributors toward the group’s charitable works, which benefit more than 100 organizations annually.
As for the commission, just why is it that so many people covet this piece of paper?
“If you or I could answer that then we could explain the mystique of Kentucky,” said Bastin.
Here are a few value points we heard in an unscientific sampling: Status in an “exclusive” club. Networking value. Public recognition for good works. Free Derby tickets. (That last one is myth, Bastin said.)
“It hit my heart, OK?” replied Russ Marlowe, 70, of Bardstown, when he was asked what it meant to him to receive his commission in 1967. It was presented for his work as a state police dispatcher.
“I consider it the most prestigious honorary award that can be had,” Marlowe said. He claims he has since nominated perhaps 500 others – mostly military veterans – for Colonels commissions. He hasn’t been turned down yet.
“People certainly hang them in their offices,” said Les Fugate, director of communications for Grayson’s office. “I have seen them up in many states. It is also a great conversation starter.”
Louella Moore has had her Colonels certificate for about seven years. It was part of a state government thank-you to the 87-year-old for decades of work at Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park in Mt. Olive.
Known as “Miss Lou,” she retired earlier this year after 31 years of welcoming people to the park’s “Pioneer Museum.” Moore, a widow, said her Kentucky Colonel certificate hangs framed in her living room. “I’m really proud of that.”
From another value perspective, a Kentucky newspaperman said sourly, “It means that I have a framed document on the wall signed by a governor.”
Louisville native Scotty Jones received his commission for being a member of the famed U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds precision flight team after the squadron performed in the “Thunder Over Louisville” air show in the late ’90s.
Jones’ mother, Mary “Deedy” Jones, was made a Colonel in 1986 for being the first African-American female inducted into the Louisville Amateur Softball Hall of Fame.
Her son, now retired from the Air Force, called it “a blessing” to be included in “a group of outstanding people,” but thinks having to make donations to retain “active” status in the Honorary Order is unfair for a distinction already earned.
Nevertheless, Jones proudly displays his Colonels certificate in his home in Las Vegas, where the Thunderbirds are based.
“Everyone asks what it took to get it,” Jones said. “They are very impressed. I hear comments like ‘cool,’ ‘that’s great.’”
John Carbone, a Philadelphian and now a Louisville humorist, among other things, swore he wasn’t making this up as he told an odd tale of standing in line at a Louisville muffin shop soon after moving to the city in 1995.
Another man waiting to be served overheard Carbone’s northeast accent and struck up a conversation with him.
“He said he worked for the state, which meant nothing to me,” said Carbone, 55, who sold insurance and other investment products.
Shortly after that encounter, Carbone said he went to his mailbox and to his surprise found a Kentucky Colonel certificate with his name on it. The fellow muffin-buyer was a major player in the governor’s office.
Today Carbone says in a voice devoid of concern that he has no idea where his unframed certificate is.
Several Colonels who received their commissions decades ago were under the impression they were being taken into a very exclusive club.
Jeffersontown hairdresser Mary Pena, 58, was nominated to be a Colonel by a female buddy for “doing a lot of community work” in her suburban neighborhood.
“When I got it I thought it was fantastic,” she said, “But now it seems like everybody’s getting (one).”
“I grant it’s not as exclusive as it was,” Bastin said. But “when you consider what the population is worldwide, it’s still a relatively exclusive organization.”
Celebrities? Kentucky Colonelship is a celebrity magnet.
Just a few include Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Clinton, Billy Ray Cyrus, Johnny Depp, Muhammad Ali, Richard Petty, the singing Judds, Tiger Woods and the late Pope John Paul II. Past members include W.C. Fields, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Bob Hope.
In weightier matters, Bastin said his organization distributed $1.7 million in financial aid around Kentucky last year and will do again this year. The Order boasts an exceptionally low fundraising expense rate of only 8 percent – the Better Business Bureau considers 35 percent overhead rate reasonable.
The commissioned title “Kentucky Colonel” has been around since 1813, tied to a ceremonial military guard of the governor. The non-military Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels was established in 1932, dedicated to “the advancement of Kentucky and Kentuckians.”
“It’s never been an old men’s club,” Bastin said, citing two women whom he described as instrumental to the charitable success of its early days – Col. Anna Friedman, from Anchorage, and Anna Bell Ward Olsen of Somerset.
For anyone with active status, there is a shot at a couple of social plums.
A limited number of about 800 Colonels attend the annual Kentucky Oaks Derby Extravaganza at the Kentucky Derby Museum. The event includes seats at the track on Derby Day, which the members pay for.
A second annual social function, the Colonels Reunion BBQ, is held the day after the Derby, taking place for years at Friedman’s home and more recently in Bardstown at the Wickland estate. However, the event ended this spring – victim of too much competition with other Derby events for attendees. Bastin said it may be rescheduled for another time of the year.
Bastin wants the Order to be seen and known for its altruistic endeavors, more than for its partying. Last year, the Colonels funded more than 150 grants.
Support ranges from a boy’s home in Ashland to a Salvation Army post in Lexington, from a children’s center in Bowling Green to an outlet for infants’ necessities in Hazard.
Donations also help pay for the organization’s four-year-old “Better Life” scholarship program, which teams the Order with the Kentucky Community & Technical College System to help single mothers succeed through education.
Such projects as those, Bastin said, maintain a public image that Colonels are “ambassadors for the state, and pretty darn good ones, too.”
Responding to a suggestion that some of those 16,000 yearly commissions might be used simply as handouts – say from legislators to their favorite constituents – Bastin replied, “I don’t think that goes on as much as you might perceive it to.”