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COLUMN: Don’t cheapen the colonel

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By John Shindlebower

I used to gaze in awe at the framed certificate that hung on my dad’s wall. He had spent four years in the U.S. Navy, 20 plus years in the U.S. Army Reserves and his civilian job was for the Department of Defense. He spent his life as an enlisted man — yet this certificate in his office declared him a full-fledged Kentucky colonel.
He’d received the commission when I was just a little boy and I had often wondered what heroic deed he had performed to have been so honored. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned that it was more of an honorary title. I accepted that discovery, but not without a little disappointment.
However, that disappointment has grown in recent weeks since we’ve learned that Kentucky’s newly sworn-in Secretary of State has been handing out those certificates like a man in a clown costume might dish out buy-one-get-one-free coupons at the grand opening of a restaurant.
Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has been in office a little more than two months and she’s responsible for Kentucky’s army of colonels growing by nearly 1,200.
I’ve yet to receive my certificate, although I’ve long considered myself a loyal Kentuckian who lists Jesse Stuart as a favorite author, Tom T. Hall as a favorite songwriter, and Ale 8 One as a favorite beverage. Seems my sin of omission was not donating to Grime’s political campaign last fall. Over half of the Kentucky colonel certificates Grimes has secured have gone to her political donors.
Now I can’t sit in judgment and make the claim that all of her political friends are not worthy of having that certificate on the wall. They may all be wonderful Kentuckians of remarkable accomplishment and deserving of special note. If so, the honor may be legit. But if those commissions were nothing more than a celebratory thank-you to Grime’s political friends, then that’s troubling.
Kentucky has been commissioning colonels for as far back as 1813 when the honor originally signified some military merit. By the late 1800s, the honor had been extended to civilians who served as special aides or trusted acquaintances of the governor. In the 1920s, a small group of Kentucky colonels organized as a charitable group and today the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels is an active benevolent group that benefits people and causes all across the Commonwealth.
Given its history, the Kentucky colonel shouldn’t be an honor completely devoid of merit. Recent governors have made a practice of bestowing the title of Kentucky colonel on athletes, celebrities, politicians and dignitaries, many of whom have no real ties to Kentucky whatsoever. It’s an honor so readily given that I expect Justin Beiber to be commissioned the next time he visits Louisville for a concert.
While the recognition and publicity of commissioning the famous might help the charitable cause, there should be some dignity reserved within this proud order and some criteria set forth that makes one worthy of such an honor beyond mere popularity.
A Kentucky colonel certificate should spur questions such as “Wow, what did you do to earn that?” rather than “How much did you donate?” or “How many You Tube hits do you have?” Let’s not turn the Kentucky colonel into an empty honor.