A Ky. Colonel is more than just a certificate

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By Don White

A framed certificate hangs on my office wall declaring “The Honorable Don White is commissioned a Kentucky Colonel.” Prior to Nov. 24, I’d never taken the honor seriously.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact I’d been commissioned a Colonel by at least three Kentucky governors prior to the latest from former Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

Near as I could tell, being a Colonel, even one commissioned multiple times, hadn’t done anything to enhance my life. I may have been a Colonel, but I was anything but honorable, delighting in stories in which some reporter successfully secured a commission for a dog.

Reading obituaries (one of my favorite hobbies), I was often amused by the fact people listed being a Kentucky Colonel as one of the deceased’s outstanding accomplishments.

So what happened on Nov. 24? I got educated.

My teacher was Col. Glen R. Bastin.

The native of Eubank in northern Pulaski County is senior ambassador for the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels.

Bastin is a veteran newsman who gained recognition for leading the news team at WHAS radio in Louisville during the 1974 tornado. He became widely known across the state throughout the 1980s and early 1990s as host of the syndicated radio program “Pondering Kentucky.” Featuring five-minute segments on Kentuckians, it broadcast on 85 stations.

Among the 63-year-old’s long list of honors is inclusion in the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame. He was also commissioned a Kentucky Colonel in 1974.

“I may have been a Colonel, but I didn’t know anything about the organization until about 1999 or 2000,” he says.

He wasn’t alone.

A survey had just been conducted showing very few people were aware of the good works the Colonels were doing throughout Kentucky.

Jim Lindsey, an executive with Doe Advertising and member of the Colonels’ Board of Trustees convinced Bastin to become chief operating officer and spread the word about the organization.

Although the title Kentucky Colonel originated in 1813, the beginnings of the group as an organization to promote charitable programs dates to the administration of Gov. Flem Sampson in the early 1930s.

Today, the only involvement between state government and the Colonels’ organization is the nomination process and the issuing of certificates. An applicant must be recommended by an individual holding a Colonel Commission, and recommendations go to the office of the governor.

During the last 76 years, millions of dollars have gone out to worthy causes across the state, with all 120 counties benefiting from the generosity of many of the more than 100,000 Colonels around the world.

The first major donations poured forth in 1937 in the aftermath of the Ohio River flood.

“Some people give a dollar a year, all the way up to $10,000,” says Bastin. The average donation is about $40.”

More than 40,000 Colonels contributed in 2007, allowing the organization to deliver grants totaling a million and a half dollars to over 167 educational and charitable groups throughout Kentucky.

Grants ranged from $365 to the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust to $25,000 for the Kentucky Lions Eye Foundation.

A small army of volunteers from across the state assists Bastin and his staff and the Colonels’ Board of Trustees in sorting through requests for grants, making sure eligibility guidelines are met, etc.

“Many of the projects aided by the Colonels can soften the hearts of even the most cynical journalists,” claims Bastin. “It’s hard not to be touched when you visit a group helping the extreme handicapped.”

Bastin is also prone to becoming misty-eyed by the generosity of donors. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Colonels is the fact that, unlike most charitable groups, they don’t conduct fundraisers.

Receiving so much funding each year without having a concentrated solicitation effort is something even the head Colonel has trouble understanding.

“We never knock on a door, never ask a business for support,” he notes.

“Once each year we mail all active Colonels (those who have made a donation of any amount within a three-year time period) a booklet listing where all the money from the previous year has gone,” says Bastin.

Donations come in from all around the world and nearly all the money is spent in Kentucky.

“We did contribute to the Katrina Relief Fund, but that was through the Kentucky Baptist organization,” he explains.

“I suppose we are able to do what we do because of the pride people have in holding a Kentucky Colonel commission,” he says.

The views expressed in this column are those of the writer. Columnist Don White has served as editor at several Kentucky newspapers. Contact him at dwhite@thekytraveler.com.