First published Oct. 25, 2020
TUSCUMBIA — Tom McKnight was unprepared for the package addressed to “Colonel Thomas McKnight,” considering he left the U.S. Air Force with the rank of sergeant.
The package arrived a few months after he was asked by an officer of the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Chief Colbert Chapter if he minded being nominated to become a Kentucky Colonel.
“Naturally, I replied in the affirmative and thereafter thought no more about it,” said McKnight, a tireless advocate for military veterans and a member of Tuscumbia’s American Legion Post 31 Color/Honor Guard.
Kentucky Colonel is the highest honor awarded by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. According to the Kentucky secretary of state’s website, it began in 1813 during the second term of Gov. Issac Shelby after he returned from leading the Kentucky Militia on a highly successful campaign during the War of 1812.
Shelby named one of his officers, Charles Todd, as an aid-de-camp on the governor’s staff with the rank and grade of colonel. Later governors commissioned colonels to act as their protective guards. They wore uniforms and were present at most official functions.
“They couldn’t afford to pay staff, so he appointed people as colonels to go with him and work with him and whatever he needed,” said Verna Brennan, a Kentucky native and member of the DAR.
Today, commissions for Kentucky Colonels are conferred by the governor and the secretary of state to individuals in recognition of noteworthy accomplishments, and outstanding service to a community, state or the nation.
“I sent in his résumé to nominate him,” Brennan said. “You have to do a lot of service to mankind and he has definitely done it. That’s the biggie.”
A Kentucky Colonel since 1984, Brennan said only a Kentucky Colonel can nominate someone for the honor.
A letter included in the package along with his certificate read: “The Governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky has identified you as a person of noteworthy accomplishments. You have been chosen to receive a commission as a Kentucky Colonel in recognition of your service to others. This is the highest title of honor bestowed by the Governor, and we are grateful to have a person of your caliber among our ranks.”
McKnight has spent more than half his life working with various United Nations agencies that assisted people impacted by drought, famine and civil war. Brennan said McKnight fits the requirements of the Kentucky Colonel.
“My personal philosophy is that service to others, and choosing, or, being directed to identify a unit of service in one’s lifetime, is the rent that we pay on this earth in order to gain entry into heaven when that time comes,” McKnight said.
According to the Kentucky secretary of state’s website, the ranks of Kentucky Colonels include distinguished leaders such as Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, volunteer firemen and teachers, people from all walks of life who have performed in an extraordinary manner.
Brennan said the honor was also bestowed upon a former Sheffield mayor, the late Billy Don Anderson, Sheffield resident Joe Cooney, and Sheffield historian Richard Sheridan, who is also from Kentucky.
Since COVID-19 has impacted DAR meetings, Brennan mailed McKnight’s certificate to him.
“I was pleased and honored to be considered for such a prestigious award and title,” McKnight said.