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Farewell to the Colonel?

It's a bit unsettling to note the possible demise of yet another familiar face that boomers grew up with. And it doesn't make it any easier that he's actually been dead for more than 30 years.


The Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal and other news outlets report that KFC, the fast-food chain formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken, is launching a restaurant that doesn't feature its venerable founder, Colonel Harland Sanders.

The convivial southern gentleman with the frosty goatee, clad in his trademark white suit, two-tone eyeglass frames and string tie, has been associated with the company's fried chicken since the 1950s. But his likeness, which long has emblazoned KFC's signs and packages and been featured in TV commercials, will be absent from a new prototype restaurant, KFC eleven, that the company is opening next month in Louisville.

KFC President John Cywinski told NBC News that the new Sanders-less format and menu - which features flatbread sandwiches, salads and boneless chicken - is intended to draw in a broader customer base, particularly women, as KFC strives to compete with such newfangled casual-dining restaurants as Chipotle and Panera. (Existing KFC outlets will continue to use the Colonel's likeness, according to news reports.)

If the Colonel Sanders character is indeed being eased into retirement, this wouldn't be the first time that a classic advertising mascot has been put out to pasture - remember Josephine the Plumber, who once peddled Comet cleanser? - but the Colonel is a bit different. Unlike Bob's Big Boy or Ronald McDonald, the Colonel was a real person. Sanders was a former gas station owner in Corbin, Ky., who started selling fried chicken to hungry travelers. In the 1950s, Sanders developed his special chicken recipe - those "11 herbs and spices" - and began a nationwide franchise business.

Even after Sanders sold the company to investors in 1964 for the then-handsome sum of $2 million, he continued to be a major part of the company's marketing. Sanders' likeness continued to be emblazoned on KFC's cardboard barrels of chicken, and he appeared in commercials and traveled the country making public appearances. When he died in 1980 at age 90, an Associated Press obituary called him "as recognizable as John Wayne, almost in the same league as Santa Claus."

Here's a 1969 TV commercial featuring Sanders in the flesh.

Some intriguing facts about the real Colonel Sanders:

  • Sanders dropped out of school in the sixth grade but nevertheless eventually received six honorary doctorates.
  • As he recounted in a 1968 interview, at age 10 he was fired from a $2-a-month job as a farm laborer because his employer thought he spent too much time watching birds and squirrels. Before going into the restaurant business, he worked at various times as a plowman, horse-carriage painter, streetcar conductor, railroad fireman, and tire and insurance salesman.
  • According to biographer Josh Ozersky, Sanders was once forced to shoot another gas station owner in the shoulder in self-defense, in a dispute over a gas station sign. Charges against him were dismissed, while his assailant went to prison for murder.
  • He started peddling Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises at age 65, using his first $105 Social Security check to finance his expenses.
  • Once he became wealthy, he paid for the upkeep of more than 250 foster children around the world and gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in college scholarships to students - on the condition that they refrain from smoking cigarettes.
  • After selling KFC, he contemplated starting a second chain of restaurants that specialized in ham and eggs.
  • In 1977, he testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging.
  • He gave away the bulk of his fortune to charities such as the Salvation Army and City of Hope, and at his death left an estate valued at just $1.5 million.
  • In June, one of Sanders' trademark white suits was sold at auction for $21,510. The buyer was Masao "Charlie" Watanabe, chief executive of Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan, who promptly tried it on.


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