The significance of being a 'Kentucky Colonel'?

The Kentucky Colonels are an institution—and not just in Kentucky. Celebrities and common folk alike aspire to Colonelhood. But bragging rights for individuals are not all the Colonels organization distributes: Over the years, the Honorable Order has given millions of dollars to Kentucky charities.

"Kentucky Colonels" from Kentucky Life Program 113 (1995) (This will open up your Windows Media program in a separate window)

An overview of the charitable activities of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (HOKC) and the history of the title of Kentucky Colonel, an honorific bestowed by the governor. LENGTH: 00:09:34 Copyright © 2001-2010 KET

Kentucky Colonel is an honorary title bestowed upon individuals by approval of the governor of Kentucky. It is not a military rank, requires no duties, and carries with it no pay or other compensation other than membership in the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels.


The title Kentucky Colonel originated in 1813. The Kentucky Militia had just returned from a highly successful “War of 1812” campaign that resulted in control of the Northwest being returned to the United States. When the militia dispersed, Governor Isaac Shelby asked Charles S. Todd, one of his officers in the campaign, to remain in the capitol and serve as an aide-de-camp on the Governor’s Staff. Todd was given the rank of Colonel.

Early Colonels, such as Colonel Todd, actually served military roles. But, as times changed throughout the 1800’s, the title became more of an honorary one. In the closing years of the century, Colonels in uniform would stand as symbolic guards at state events and social functions were held for them at the Governor’s mansion. In the late 1920’s, a group of Colonels started talking about forming a formal “society”. Governor Flem Sampson wrote the organizers of the project: “I am for it.” Late one Saturday afternoon in May of 1931, the first meeting of what would eventually become the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels was held in Frankfort, Kentucky.

“Formulate a society to more closely band together this group into a great non-political brotherhood for the advancement of Kentucky and Kentuckians,” Governor Sampson challenged the organizers. Minutes of the early meetings confirm that charitable programs were to be a central part of the organization. Social events would also play an important role. “The Kentucky Colonels” held a Derby Eve dinner in 1932 as their first event.

Ruby Laffoon, who seemed to have had an innate sense of Public Relations and an affinity for Hollywood stars, replaced Sampson as Governor in 1932. Not long after taking office, Laffoon met with Colonel Anna Bell Ward Olsen who owned several movie theaters across Kentucky. A representative of theater owners nationwide, who also held a Kentucky Colonel commission, accompanied Colonel Olsen. The meeting theoretically concerned movie censorship. However, what came out of the meeting was a “new” organization to be called the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. Laffoon appointed Colonel Olsen as Secretary and Keeper of the Great Seal.

Colonel Olsen attacked her new position with fervor. Colonels around the world were contacted and invited to become members of the Honorable Order. Social events were scheduled to coincide with the Kentucky Derby to attract as many individuals as possible. At the same time, Governor Laffoon started appointing Colonels with the same zeal. Hollywood personalities such as Mae West, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Will Rogers, Fred Astaire and W.C. Fields not only became Colonels but also embraced the idea of the Honorable Order. On November 28, 1933, Governor Laffoon arranged and CBS Radio broadcasted nationwide “Parade of Kentucky Colonels.” The 45 minute program featured many of the stars offering their support for President Roosevelt’s efforts to fight the Depression.

The Colonels, the Great Flood, and my hometown

The opportunity for the Honorable Order to assist the state in a charitable form rained down in 1937. The Great Flood of 1937 was disastrous for the entire Commonwealth. The Kentucky Colonels appointed during the Sampson and Laffoon administrations, and organized by Colonel Olsen, went to work. New York based Colonels collected five dollars from each member. In California, Colonels such as Fred Astaire held benefits to raise money for Kentucky.

Recovery from the flood was still ongoing as the war in Europe broke out. As WWII loomed at the change of the decade, the “great non-political brotherhood” was again mobilized, this time by another Colonel Anna.

Colonel Anna Friedman had taken over the duties of Keeper of the Great Seal from Colonel Olsen. It was a job that fit her perfectly. Not even Governor Laffoon enjoyed associating with the stars and the elite business community of New York as much as did Colonel Anna. As the country prepared for war, Colonel Anna again withdrew funds from these honorary “Kentuckians” and used the money to set up recreation rooms for soldiers in training at Fort Knox, my hometown. The Kentucky Colonels established and then posted signs in at least 35 facilities, to include the Visitor's Center, Ninninger Recreation and Copple Recreation Centers. The signs read, “Kentucky Colonels hope you hang out and have fun here.”

The Colonel Traditions - socializing and fundraising - begins

Colonel social events were cancelled during the war. However, a small group of Colonels gathered annually at The Forest, Colonel Anna’s home in Anchorage, a northern suburb of Louisville, to drink a toast to the men and women in the service. It was, incidentally, at The Forest that the grand tradition of the Kentucky Colonels’ Reunion-BBQ began in the late 1930’s. The event continues today outside of Bardstown, Kentucky and is one of the most sought-after invitations during Derby Week.

The years following the war saw the charitable side of the Honorable Order grow rapidly. In 1946, Colonels purchased radios for Veterans' hospitals and pledged money to help start the Kentucky “Country Doctors” fund. Today, the fund is known more politically correct as the “Rural Kentucky Medical Scholarship Fund”. It has helped hundreds of physicians attend medical school in return for a promise to practice in rural areas of the state. The region's first cancer treatment center and the renowned Lions Eye Research Center also continue to serve. Both were established in the 1960s, funded in large part by the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels.

Kentucky Colonels today

Colonels continue to contribute dollars to the goal of benefiting Kentucky and Kentuckians. As an IRS recognized 501 (c) 3 charity, the Honorable Order has distributed over 5000 grants to charitable and educational agencies in the past half century. For the last 14 years, the Honorable Order’s Board of Trustees has distributed approximately 1.5 million dollars each year. The money is all voluntarily contributed by Colonels living in every state in the nation as well as Colonels living in nearly three dozen countries abroad.

Efforts made possible by the collective generosity of Kentucky Colonels include: Delivery of relief funds to the Gulf Coast on the day after Katrina hit; Support of a Hazard, Kentucky organization that provides baby food, diapers, etc. to families who are down on their luck; Funding for a playground at a homeless shelter and another at an orphanage; funding to support the purchase of vans and other vehicles for disabled children; special comfort rooms for the families of those being treated for cancer, and on and on. Each year, a complete listing of grants made by the Good Works Program is placed on the Kentucky Colonels web site. The site also has details of how the program is administered. The HOKC was delighted to report that practically every penny contributed to the Program goes to a worthwhile cause. Over the past ten years, the average percentage of expenditures allocated to “fund raising” has been 5.8%. The percentages are calculated by an independent audit.

How Did I become a Kentucky Colonel?

Award of the title requires nomination from an existing colonel, an official from a non-profit organization, or a state or federal office holder and are approved by the sitting Governor of the Commonweath of Kentucky.

Nominators are expected to consider the nominee's service and contributions to the global community before making a nomination. Applicants should be at least 18 years old although those younger may be awarded a commission based upon exceptional service to the Commonweath and/or its people. The sitting governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky bestows the honor of a Colonel's Commission, by issuance of a certificate. Each Governor awards a limited number of commissions each year they are in office and the appointments are a matter of public record.

I have been honored by three Kentucky Governors for my service to the Commonwealth and to our nation. The first time I was honored, I was 15 years old at the time and was serving as the Area Exploring Chair for Kentucky and Tennessee. Many Kentucky Colonels have received this honor while they were in their youth, for service ranging from saving the life of a fellow Kentuckian to serving on the board or chair of a board of a non-profit organization which benefitted Kentuckians. The second time I was honored, it was for my service to the Scouting programs in Kentucky and the southeastern part of the United States and was part of the recognition ceremony ending my Paraprofessional service to the Commonweath of Kentucky. I was awarded the second Commission at the Governor's residence. I was nominated by the head of the Boy Scouting organization in Kentucky and Tennessee (who is NOT a Kentucky Colonel although he should have been). The third Governor nominated me for my longtime service to youth and their families across the United States through Scouting and that honor was granted to me in 1996. I believe that I was nominated that time by a Kentucky Colonel who did not know about the previous two awards.

My mother, Moseanna Walton, became a Kentucky Colonel in 1998 because of her services as a linkpin in the Radcliff, Kentucky Black community. The then-mayor of Radcliff nominated her.

What good is being named a 'Kentucky Colonel'?

The appointment gives one the ability to continue to be of service to others through membership in the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels (HOKC). I give freely of my time, monies and personal energies whenever I'm back in my home state -- and other Colonels do so likewise. This has enabled the HOKC to give millions of dollars on our behalf to several hundred organizations -- big and small, all over the Commonwealth and in states bordering Kentucky which work with and for Kentuckians through their programs.

I am most proud of the long association between the Kentucky television/radio station WHAS, the hundreds of volunteer and professional firefighters, and the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels in raising and giving money to assist mentally and/or physically disabled children and young adults each year. While I am far away from Kentucky -- even so now -- I do look forward in hearing from my fellow Colonels as well as Scouting volunteers and members as they once again support the "Crusade for Children."

On a purely personal and self-serving point, I have purchased a special Kentucky Colonel state licence plate for my Kentucky-registered automobile. This plate special Kentucky license plate for Kentucky Colonelsfeatures a registration number along with the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonel's logo/seal. It is a very distinctive automobile item and is a way that I can find my car from the other cars which look similar in the parking lots. I have also special Kentucky Colonel seals on all of the vehicles in the Walton household and in most cases it is the ONLY seal or logo on those vehicles. I also own two very special Kentucky Stoneware coffee mugs, which has the Seal and my name on the on the mug. One of them is sitting on my desk in my military office. The proceeds from my and others' purchases go into the Good Works Fund.

While my personal accomplishments are slight compared to the many other Kentuckians and honorary Kentuckians who have received this honor, I feel very proud and special that Governors -- Democrat and Republican -- honored me for not what I have done but what I continue to do: to be of service to fellow Kentuckians and in return, to the place I call home: Kentucky and the USA.

(additional sources: Wikipedia and HOKC Blog)