The title unites state capitol custodians with rockstars and beloved teachers with presidents and popes.
An invitation to join the Honorable Order of the Kentucky Colonels is the highest honor the commonwealth’s governor can give.
Kentucky Colonels are all around us. There are 30,000 active members and we see them in movies and hear them sing on the radio. Sometimes they’re civil servants, teachers, first responders, or nurses. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear named every custodian in the Kentucky State Capitol a Kentucky Colonel for their role in keeping our government going in the health crisis of a century.
With hundreds of thousands of people carrying the ceremonial title, it begs the question ― what exactly does it mean to be a Kentucky Colonel?
The answer goes well beyond the paper certificate the Governor's Office sends when you earn the commission.
At its core, the Honorable Order of the Kentucky Colonels is a philanthropic group made of people from all 50 states and 59 different countries, who have a reputation for making their community a better place. The unifying principle among all the colonels is a desire to help other people, Sherry Crose, the executive director of the order, told me.
Some are international celebrities or high-ranking corporate officials with deep pockets and foundational ties. Others make a difference on a much smaller, but no less important scale by aiding local schools, and volunteering at area nonprofits. Together, this influence bolsters the $60 million in grants that the order has provided to 1,800 Kentucky nonprofits since 1951.
In times of great need, the order’s board invokes what Crose calls “the power of the colonels” to help communities across Kentucky and the world.
“The Commonwealth has been around since 1792, and the Kentucky Colonel honorary commission has been around since the 1800s,” Crose told me. "So we are interwoven in the fabric of the Commonwealth, but the philanthropic touch is what makes it special."
What is a Kentucky Colonel?
While the Kentucky Colonels of today are not affiliated with the military, the title itself dates back to a successful campaign during the War of 1812.
When the conflict ended, then-Gov. Issac Shelby commissioned Charles S. Todd, one of his officers in the campaign, as an Aide-de-Camp on the governor’s staff, according to the Kentucky Colonels' website. Todd’s official rank and grade was colonel, and that set a precedent for more colonels to come.
During the late 19th century, the governor’s colonels often attended state events in uniform and served as ceremonial guards. Over time that shifted into a society and the first official meeting was held in May 1931. The group evolved to host dynamic social events, and the membership base expanded to include Hollywood stars.
Dancing icon Fred Astaire, who was born in Nebraska, had no true ties to the Bluegrass State, but when he has commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, he embraced it. When the Great Flood of 1937 hit, Astaire hosted a benefit to aid the disaster relief. Throughout the country, colonels chipped in $5 each, raising hundreds of dollars to help flood victims in Kentucky.
That generosity set the tone for the organization’s philanthropic arm as we know it today. The colonels rallied again during World War II to support troops at Fort Knox, and in 1951, the Honorable Order of the Kentucky Colonel became a 501c3 nonprofit.
Who are the Kentucky Colonels?
Today some celebrity colonels have deep Kentucky ties. Backstreet Boys Brian Littrell and Kevin Richardson, actress Jennifer Lawrence, country music sensation Carley Pearce and Food Network chef Damaris Phillips all call the Bluegrass State home in one way or another.
Others, like the late Pope Benedict, may never have set foot in the commonwealth at all.
As I dove into the history and mechanics of this award, a few things became abundantly clear to me. The first, and most important, is that many of the colonels genuinely embrace the philanthropic side of the organization and the call to be a helpful person.
At the same time, there are plenty of Kentucky Colonels out there, who believe their title is a ceremonial piece of paper or a club built on people knowing the right people.
Many have no idea how they came to join it or even the true depths of the possibilities tied to it.
I figured this out through an extremely unscientific survey on Twitter that garnered more than 100 responses.
While I would love to have had an exclusive with the Backstreet Boys to hear how they’ve stepped up for the Bluegrass State, what I actually got was a humbling list of people, who really seem to care.
Col. Beth Potter, who’s originally from Letcher County, earned her title by working to improve mental health resources for veterans, and Col. Terena Elizabeth Bell helped create jobs for African immigrants in Louisville. When the public library in Hardin County closed, Col. Loren Embry Hales spearheaded the Radcliff Literacy Project, which launched a series of Free Little Libraries and brought books to children in the community.
A few people, like Col. Cameron French, had political ties. He spent some time interning for Rep. Cherlynn Stevenson and was nominated for civic engagement with young voters.
Several colonels were (likely unknowingly) following in Col. Astaire's footsteps and were commissioned for helping during catastrophic events.
Activist Skylar Davis has a long history of community involvement, but she received her colonelship for making masks at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when they were tough to come by. Col. Amy Mischer, who lives in Florida now, was just 10 years old when her entire family became colonels. Her father used the family tractors to help clear the roads from the Beechridge area to Frankfort during the Blizzard of 1978.
Randaline Barnett, who is originally from Breathitt County but lives in North Carolina now, earned her colonelship last summer during the historic flooding in Eastern Kentucky. Gov. Beshear signed her order after she and a friend collected and flew in supplies to help victims.
"We have found when people receive the Kentucky Colonel commission, they're very touched because someone recognized what they did," Crose told me.
Other responses were admittedly less noble.
One man told me “I was nominated by my dad because I wanted to be one,” and another said, “my brother nominated me for being his outstanding brother.”
A few folks on social media called out the Kentucky Colonels for being elitist or ceremonial. Several said they earned their title by graduating from high school or because they knew someone with ties to state government. For some in the order, recognition came in tandem with other accomplishments like Eagle Scout projects or 40 under 40 awards.
How do you become a Kentucky Colonel?
Every Kentucky Colonel commission is recorded as an executive order stored in leather-bound books at the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives. Today, there are about 95,000 Kentucky Colonels in the honorable orders database, and of those, about 30,000 are active in and contribute to the organization, Crose told me.
The nomination process is relatively simple. There's a form available on the Kentucky Governor's website and it asks the nominator to list the person's contact information, service to the community, and reason for the nomination. When you hit submit, the nomination first goes to the governor's office. Two of his staff members sort through them, but ultimately, the governor decides who earns the colonelship.
In recent years, the protocols have tightened. Gov. Matt Bevin changed the criteria so that you have to be at least 18 years old to join the honorable order, Crose told me. Prior to that, some people were nominating their children on the day they were born, because there had been a long line of colonels in the family.
Crose says she’s seen older applications that merely say that someone is a “good person.” That doesn’t fly nowadays. While achievements and contributions come in all sizes, you do have to do something for your community to earn the governor's highest honor.
That heart of service is important because the order serves as a pipeline for the world to reach out to Kentucky and for Kentucky to reach out to the world.
The 'power of the colonels'
Crose has been leading the order since 2017, and the first time she really felt the “power of the colonels” was the summer during Hurricane Harvey. After that storm hit, colonels started calling her office eager to help, so she reached out to a member in Houston to suss out the best use of their dollars. The board committed $10,000 to the cause, and then just as it did during the Flood of 1937, asked its members for donations.
The Kentucky Colonels sent $80,000 to the Houston Food Bank and designated it for hurricane survivors.
More often than not, though, the Kentucky Colonels' financial resources stay right here in Kentucky.
The morning after tornadoes thrashed into Western Kentucky in December 2021, Crose's phone began ringing with colonels wanting to help. Less than two days after the storm, she had more than $2 million in pledges from members of the honorable order eager to create a challenge match. The Kentucky Colonels have since raised more than $4.2 million to help the tornado victims. They've been careful, too, about how quickly they spend it. They've still got about $2 million left to contribute. The organization understands that recovery is a lengthy process, and Crose said the group wants to be there for the long haul.
The colonels answered the call again the following summer and raised $1.8 million for Eastern Kentucky flood victims.
Natural disasters are an extreme example. Most often the colonels' funding is used in small but tangible ways that make a big impact on Kentucky's nonprofits. This year they’ll distribute $3.1 million in grants, and they’re reviewing applications from 350 nonprofits scattered throughout the Commonwealth.
Over the years, the money raised from Kentucky Colonel donations has funded security cameras for Eastern Cemetery in Louisville and a kitten incubator for a rural animal shelter. If you've ever seen a van with a Kentucky Colonel emblem on it, it's because the honorable order gave it to that nonprofit. They’ve bought ponchos for organizations that help the unhoused and bought dozens of drums for the Louisville Leopard Percussionists.
The list goes on and on.
And while to some it's a ceremonial title, there are many, many colonels, who take their commission as a mission.
The honorable order is a network of people, who use the resources they have ― however large or small they may be ― to help.
Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. If you've got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at email@example.com or 502-582-4053. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: What is a Kentucky Colonel and how do you become one? What to know