Many people think of the Kentucky Colonels as a group of people that enjoys the good life, has an enviable social calendar and, during Kentucky Derby week, consumes mint juleps as if they were iced tea. Well, that’s us! But, there is much, much more behind those fancy certificates and The Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels’ membership cards that are displayed by deserving individuals world-wide.
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 AID-DE- CAMP on the Governor’s Staff. Todd was given the rank and grade of Colonel.
Early Colonels, such as Colonel Todd, actually served military roles. But, as times changed throughout the1800’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 gave his blessings to the project. “I am for it”, he wrote the organizers. 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. And they did. 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 Lafoon arranged and CBS Radio broadcast 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 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. The Kentucky Colonels established and then posted signs in at least 35 facilities. The signs read, “Kentucky Colonels hope you hang out and have fun here.”
Colonel social events were cancelled during the war. However, a small group of Colonels gathered annually at The Forest, Colonel Anna’s Anchorage home, 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 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 regions first cancer treatment center and the renowned Lions Eye Research Center also continue to serve. Both were established in the 1960’s, funded in large part by the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels.
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 Northeast the day after Hurricaine Sandy hit to provide food and shelter for victims and first responders; 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; etc. etc. etc. 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. We are 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 6%. The percentages are calculated by an independent audit.
Please explore www.kycolonels.org to learn more about the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. We continue to strive to adhere to Governor Sampson’s 1931 directive. Today we state it this way: Kentucky Colonels Care.