Once upon a time it was common throughout the region for a governor to reward political supporters with a glamorous title via an appointment in the state militia. In Kentucky this tradition began in 1813 during the second term of Governor Isaac Shelby. Shelby had just returned from leading the Kentucky Militia on a highly successful “War of 1812” campaign. He named one of his officers, son-in-law Charles Todd, an “Aid-De-Camp” on the governor’s staff with the rank and grade of Colonel. Local notables were often “majors” or “colonels” who had never and would never lead troops. Kentucky was no exception, but the state took the idea a step further. In 1885, Governor William Bradley appointed the first “Honorary” Kentucky Colonel, making the military standing even more tenuous.
In 1928, an effort began to organize the Colonels into “A great non-political brotherhood for the advancement of Kentucky and Kentuckians.” The “Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels was founded in 1932 by Governor Ruby Laffoon and has since been officially incorporated as a charitable organization. In 1935, the Colonels suffered a brief official setback, when Governor A.B “Happy” Chandler announced that he would appoint no new colonels, and that the commission for all existing colonels had expired when the previous governor (who bestowed a commission on Harland Sanders) left office.
The Colonels continued to operate privately, and in 1937 gathered funds from around the country to support victims of the great 1937 flood. Public attention surrounding the charitable activities of the Colonels caused Chandler to capitulate in 1938, and he began appointing new Colonels, and re-instated those who had been appointed by previous governors.
Inductees are nominated by an existing Colonel, approved by the Governor, and go on the rolls that year as an “Honorary Adviser.” There are no requirements that an inductee be either from Kentucky or even be living there at the time of his/her nomination.
The Colonels descend upon Louisville from around the globe each year for the Kentucky Derby. Mint juleps are familiar sights that weekend; an official dinner one day before the Derby and a barbecue the day after are two main items on the agenda.
In addition to well-known Colonel Harlan Sanders, some very non-Kentuckians like Bob Hope, Omar Bradley, Joan Crawford, Pope John Paul II, and Mae West are all Kentucky Colonels.
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