Colonels in Nebraska

The April-June 1940 issue of Nebraska History included the following query: “Can you give me any information concerning the origin of the usage of the term ‘Colonel’ as applied to newspaper editors and to auctioneers in Nebraska? Is it true that Governor [Ezra P.] Savage named all Nebraska editors as colonels on his personal staff? Was this done by other Nebraska governors?”

Nebraska History editor Addison E. Sheldon’s reply was based upon his memories of his own newspaper career and his knowledge of Nebraska political life: “In the case of editors, I think the rank was always applied by some fellow editor. Most Nebraska editors have always been too modest to assume any rank or any degree not fully earned in actual service. In the days of my youth I was given the rank of ‘Colonel’ by my fellow editors in northwest Nebraska, and in some quarters it still sticks. I think the title as given by one editor to another is partly complimentary and partly derogatory. It seems to say, ‘We will just give you the rank because of your profession, but we know you ain’t.’

“The case of the auctioneer in Nebraska is altogether different. Auctioneers generally assume the title. It’s an advertising sign, and after he has carried it around for awhile he thinks he really is a colonel.

“The ‘colonels’ upon the Governor’s staff in Nebraska are, of course, a military joke. Some governors have given the title in payment of political debts, and other recipients have been glad to pay one or two hundreds dollars for a military outfit, so that they could lord it over underlings in their home town and accompany the Governor on free excursions which used to come often in the old days of railroad passes. . . . I recall that Governor Savage had a long train of ‘colonels’ on his staff and so did Governor Mickey. I doubt that Governor Savage appointed every editor in the state a colonel on his staff; at least I do not recall such an event. There is an interesting coincidence in this matter of the governor’s staff and the act of 1907 prohibiting free passes on railroads. I think the ‘colonel’ business went along with the railroad pass, but it would require research to establish the case.”

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