The Colonel’s setting sun
What a Colonel Sanders impersonator can teach us about redemption
Don Decker didn’t want this story to be written. Not really. Not as much as he wanted an investigation into the practices of the Cordish Cos., which owns and operates Fourth Street Live. That’s what brought him into the LEO offices a few weeks ago, and he was frustrated when I told him over the phone that this piece would be a profile of him, not the investigation he believes is needed.
Decker, as he repeated many times during interviews, is not important. But whether he realizes it or not, he, like so many people who volunteer themselves to the public sight, is a personality of this city, somebody who adds character and uniqueness to its streets. In simple words, he is somebody who makes Louisville the weird and compelling city that it is.
Although Decker would be more apt to admit he is just looking for something to do.
For the past two years, Decker has impersonated one of Kentucky’s favorite adopted sons: Harland “Colonel” Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. He’s stood out in Fourth Street Live, posing with tourists in a full white suit complete with black string tie, offering free photos with a suggested donation. Decker is a short man with a round belly and, at times, walks with a cane, which he fitted with a metal cobra-head grip. At 72, his white hair is swept back, and what used to be a full goatee is now a trimmed mustache and strip of hair shooting down from his bottom lip, cut to enhance his resemblance to the late Colonel. He’s worn glasses for some time but traded in an older pair for black horn-rimmed frames, also reminiscent of his alter ego.
Decker’s appearance is misleading. He didn’t come to Louisville to play a role; he came here to live. He had never even noticed his resemblance until patrons of the T.G.I.Fridays on Fourth Street, where he worked at the time, pointed it out to him, responding “thanks, Colonel” as he held open doors or welcomed them. He didn’t enjoy the recognition at first. Even grew angry at times. The infatuation from out-of-state visitors asking for pictures with him before sitting down to their meals, smiling or throwing a thumbs-up to the camera seemed cheap. They stood next to him as they would any city attraction, seeing him more as a mannequin than a man. They knew at least of Sanders’s fame but nothing about Decker other than his appearance. If he had to be recognized, he’d prefer strangers to shout his name rather than that of a dead man who knew how to fry poultry. The people posing in snapshots had no idea that Decker was a performer by trade, was tap dancing by the time he was 3, used to dream of Broadway applause, or any other hazy detail of his past.
Which comes back to why Decker didn’t want this story to be written. There are moments in all our lives that we prefer to keep to ourselves. Decker’s is no different, except that his regrets are, like his persona, more public. And more severe. Time is much more sluggish in building that slow-growing separation from his past, if it ever can. Some chapters of our lives end up defining it to others, no matter how much we fight it. And some labels are too strong to be worn away. Labels, after all, are much neater and simpler to comprehend than a full story. They permeate all parts of our lives. Good guys. Bad guys. Winners. Losers. Cops. Criminals. Liberals. Conservatives. Finger Lickin’ Good. Most of us are guilty of only learning this most basic piece of information when it comes to people, especially acquaintances, as Decker is to many. Colonel is a label Decker is embracing. Despite the implications, it is decidedly better than the one the federal judicial system saddled him with years ago: bank robber.
Decker’s Colonel Sanders act is half something to take up his time, half a return to himself before his dark years. But there’s a more instinctual motivation as well, one that most who gain a laugh or a free photo would not expect. Of all the reasons for a private individual to embrace an internationally known persona in an extremely public way, few would think it a matter of survival.
“In my apartment,” Decker says, “you find a chair sitting there facing the television and you sit there day and night, day and night, and it’s ‘well, what are you doing, are you just sitting here waiting to die?’ and you gotta say ‘yeah, that’s just what I’m doing.’ I don’t ever have any guests in my apartment. I don’t have a large circle of friends or anything of that type. My family is all gone.”
It sounds lonely.
“Sure, why would I go down to Fourth Street Live and try to talk to people? I told you, it keeps me alive. What I’m doing, it keeps me alive.”
For someone who prefers privacy, Decker couldn’t have chosen a better-known celebrity to impersonate. Locals may be numb to it, living in the Old Country of fried chicken, but saying Colonel Sanders is famous is a deep-fried understatement. Clichés, even human ones, become so for a reason. Imagine how many names you know that have elbowed their way to the status of pop culture icons. One way or another, by name, appearance or innuendo, Colonel Sanders posthumously finds his way into movies, stand-up routines, hip-hop lyrics and trivia. His name is synonymous with home-style goodness, heart attacks and chicken genocide.
Sanders is in the same bracket as Muhammad Ali when it comes to famous Louisvillians, says Jim Wood, CEO and president of the city visitor’s bureau, and a man who is paid to know about famous people who were from, lived in or visited the city.
KFC belongs to the largest restaurant corporation in the world (Yum! Brands, headquartered in Louisville) and its 14,000 restaurants stretch across 42 countries, each distributing countless buckets and cups with the Colonel’s likeness emblazoned on the side. Outside of the leaders who grace the world’s money, Sanders’s face has to be one of the most reproduced on earth. Sanders’s final resting place is Cave Hill Cemetery, and his living legacy — other than chicken, of course — is an exhibit at the city Visitor’s Center, complete with a life-size replica of the Colonel.
Not more than six blocks from the Visitor’s Center is a high-rise apartment complex with a giant black and white portrait of Sanders plastered on the back of the building. Fittingly enough, it’s where Decker has lived since moving to Louisville in 2003. His apartment window looks over downtown toward the river. Decker pulls his left foot into a leather chair and sits on it. Soon he reaches for a pack of Paul Malls and lights one. A portable air filter hisses, snatching smoke from the small apartment.
Decker began writing his life story in a Florida jail awaiting trial for extortion. A psychiatric team was trying to determine Decker’s level of sanity before the trial, and one of the doctors recommended he write out the events that led to his incarceration in an attempt for him to understand them. Decker spent the next 10 years writing off and on; the finished product is a novel titled “Forfeiture,” which he published in 2005. The narrative is based on his entire life. Growing up like any other kid from Sioux Falls, N.D., born into a vaudeville family, he remembers performing on the back of trucks at state fairs, when people still threw tomatoes when unsatisfied with a performance. He was backstage for much of his youth and remembers sleeping while bands performed.
Today he leaves the television on during the night because he cannot fall asleep in a quiet room.
He snagged work as an extra in films, put on USO shows and, after studying broadcasting in Pasadena, Calif., spent several years touring Midwest nightclubs, serving as an emcee or singing classics and show tunes during a time when the country was listening to its first clean sounds of rock ’n’ roll. His favorite songs were anything from the famous musicals: “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma,” “Carousel.” Decker had aspirations of Broadway but never followed them to the east coast.
After his release from prison, Decker published his book, something he regrets at times, partially because it gives people like me more insight into an embarrassing period of his life. I ask him about his motivation for writing it all out, the process of reliving everything in his mind. About 15 minutes into the interview, he stares off across his apartment. His lips quiver. Whether it is sorrow or the usual gentle tremors from aging, I’m not sure.
“I don’t even like to think about all this,” he tells me.
But he does anyway.
“In the criminal world, you don’t start out by robbing banks,” he says. “By the time you rob a bank you generally had a strong criminal background. I had none.”
What Decker did possess was experience as an Indianapolis bail bondsman, a business he wished he never joined and one that tiptoed the line between the legal and the criminal.
After years of touring nightclubs, a fire sent Decker rambling through careers. A club that had booked him for a few months burned and was forced to close. Decker, working through a performer’s union, learned he wouldn’t be back in booking rotation until the end of those months. He followed a friend to work as a recruiter for a technological college, thinking it would be a temporary job. But in that time Decker married and decided that a career separate from what he had done since birth might do him some good. After all, he enjoyed performing, but no fame nor fortune had come from his years of work.
Eventually he settled in Indianapolis as a real estate developer. Nothing paid well. He scraped by selling repossessed homes, often sleeping in the apartments he was repairing, waking up and working again. He saw his wife and children less and less. As an escape, Decker would drink and sing the classics he knew well from his youth. It was then, at a bar, that a friend, another singer fond of the same music, offered him a place in his bail bond business. To Decker, tired and struggling with little to show for his work, it seemed an opportunity for financial salvation. At first, the business was as he envisioned. His income grew, as did his notoriety as a bondsman. But the strains of a job that required 24-hour attention tested Decker’s marriage, health and reputation.
“Bail bonding is a necessary evil,” Decker says. “But it is an evil. You’re walking a thin line between the honorable and the dishonorable. You’re trying to walk a thin line there and it’s easy to slip off one side or the other. You slip off too far on the side of right, you have no business. You slip off too far on the side of the left, you’re in the business.”
The people Decker dealt with as a bondsman were not the most reputable in Indianapolis. He found that to track down skips, those who had not shown up to court after being bailed from jail, he had to win trust from the seedier elements of Indianapolis. He spent an increasing amount of time in clubs, building friendships with prostitutes. To handle his erratic schedule, Decker relied on amphetamines and took heavy doses of vitamins to counter the appetite that the drugs eliminated. He swung from popping speed to smoking weed when he had time to sleep or needed to relax. Alcohol was always close by. His business started to slip and he wrote more bonds to counter the dip, which evolved into a habit of writing risky bonds, bailing people out of jail whom he had difficulty tracking down. As Decker explains, a prostitute can change a wig, be on a bus and start operating states away within a day. His drug habit also drained his funds, and soon, whatever money he was able to hold onto was gone. He would spend weeks at a time away from home, sleeping in his office or another apartment he owned and had started renting out as a low-end brothel to bring in extra cash. He learned to function on three or four hours of sleep a night, and his family learned to live without him. Eventually, his wife of 20 years decided to make his absence permanent.
Decker had to drive his wife and two children to Chicago, where a train would take them from him. He stared down the stretches of pavement and paint, knowing that when the car arrived, they would be gone. At a coffee shop inside the depot, his children sat at the counter while he and his wife found a table. He asked her not to leave. He apologized. He made promises. He apologized again. It made no difference, she told him. All that mattered was what had already been done. That night, they checked into a Ramada Inn near the depot. Decker sat up for hours at a small table in the room, watching his family sleep. The next morning he watched them climb aboard a train that trudged away on the tracks.
He has not seen them since.
Decker doesn’t blame his wife for anything and consents that she did the right thing in leaving. But the sting of that day and all that led to it lingers.
“I don’t know how much my children know about me, it’s probably better if they don’t know anything,” Decker says. “My children are probably better off thinking that I’m dead, which I’m sure they do.”
Decker mentions that one of his early fears was ending up alone. He throws his hands up gesturing to his empty apartment.
“Here I am alone.”
Six months is not that long. A half-year. One baseball season. One-one-hundred-and-fifty-sixth of an average American’s life span. When others examine Decker, six months may as well be all that he’s lived. It’s a stretch of time he’ll never escape no matter how he tries, as this article’s very presence is evidence of. After all, he tells me, here he is sitting in his apartment, completely rehabilitated, still trying to explain something that happened 25 years ago. Not all life sentences are served behind prison walls. “The punishment goes on and on and anybody who thinks they can get away with doing the short term and go back into society is wrong,” Decker says. “You can’t.”
Ask him and he’ll answer honestly. Decker never set out to steal a slice of wealth for himself. He didn’t even want the money. Thievery was the means to an end. What Decker wanted was to die. Suicide by cop. Broke, without his wife and children, Decker saw little point to draw it all out. After drinking one night, he sat down on a couch, put his pistol to his head, cocked the hammer and found he couldn’t pull the trigger. Another day he wrapped a garbage bag over his head. He passed out on the floor but a friend found him there and tore the bag open before he accomplished the deed. Forcing a cop to shoot him seemed to be the answer to his unwillingness and unluckiness to follow through with his death wish. Not to mention, as a bail bondsman, many already saw him as a criminal.
Decker sits, thinking back to those dark days, hidden behind the haze of regret and cigarette smoke. It all seemed reasonable at the time, a fact he doesn’t try to defend and has come to accept as the unfortunate truth. It seemed he had reached the end of his road, and if the city fashioned him a criminal, why not die like one? Why not give both something they wanted?
There was a small problem, however. Where Decker failed in suicide, he succeeded in robbery. Rather than running into a bank with guns blazing, Decker worked a more cunning plan. He made a fake bomb to frighten a bank manager into giving up the cash. Road flairs from an emergency car kit, a series of lights and wires from Radio Shack all held together with black tape formed the device. Never having seen a bomb before, he didn’t know how well he had done, but figured any bank employee would share his ignorance.
He didn’t sleep much the night before he set out, and in the morning he rose and drove straight to the bank he had chosen. He walked inside with his bomb stowed in a zipper briefcase. But there were no guards, no one to shoot him. He left to rethink his plan and checked into a hotel across the street. He realized his bag was gone. He left it in the bank. So Decker improvised. He called the bank and told the manager about the bomb and ordered her to bring over a sack of cash, volunteering his room number for when the police arrived. He figured he’d sit back and wait for the cops to bring him what he wanted. Instead of uniformed officers swarming the street, he watched the manager exit the bank, carrying a paper bag, and walk toward the hotel. He couldn’t believe it. He left his room and stood in front of the elevator until the doors opened, revealing the manager and the money. The woman handed over the bag and retreated back to the bank, as Decker instructed. Befuddled and shocked, Decker left the hotel. He drove home, drew the shades in his apartment, sat down and started counting. He lost track each time he reached $10,000. His body sweated heavily and stained the bills. His head churned with new questions and problems.
First, he was still alive. Second, he was officially a criminal.
Decker says his end goal of suicide was never far from his mind, but after the first robbery, he found himself plotting jobs each time he saw a bank, evaluating their proximity to a hotel and weighing his chances for success. He tried again in Cincinnati using the same method, planting a fake bomb and ordering the manager to deliver money to a nearby hotel. It worked; he and an accomplice split $80,000. After his second success, Decker went on a sort of tour across the south with two accomplices, attempting jobs in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Tampa and Miami. They never succeeded. Bank managers were either uncooperative, suspicious of them or lacked enough English for Decker’s plan to work like it had in Ohio and Indiana.
Soon after the final attempt, the run he always figured would end, did. Only in much less dramatic fashion than he planned. A cop pulled him over and, after he couldn’t produce the registration, arrested Decker and searched the car. In the back sat a fake bomb. Decker was on his way to toss it in the Everglades. Never really wanting success as a thief and facing incriminating evidence, Decker confessed, and spent the next seven years in prison. He was still alive.
In the grand scheme, prison was not the worst thing to happen. Really, it probably saved him. It was a slow process, but as the days wore into weeks and months into years, Decker’s craving for drugs curbed and his desire for his own death diminished. He wrote his way through every decision, right and wrong, he’d made up to that point. Decker describes his rehabilitation as a return to the person he was before the trouble started. He even sang again, albeit for a select audience, in prison choirs. He left the penal system ashamed of what led him there, lugging much of what would become a 558-page book to remind him, with a fresh desire to stay out. But as is evident by now, Decker’s life is no fairy tale. He returned to prison again years later under stranger circumstances: After his release, a few people attempted a bank robbery in Florida using a fake bomb. Decker maintains that he had nothing to do with the robbery and claims the authorities were never able to place him at the scene. It made no difference. The man open enough to eventually publish nearly every mistake he’d ever made may have been convicted because of his past.
Either way, he spent 110 more months in prison.
But all of this was long ago, Decker reminds me. It doesn’t have anything to do with what he’s doing now; he’s a different person from who was convicted in the early 1980s. It’s true. Decker came to Louisville to do little more than exist peacefully. He had visited the city years before and found it cheap enough to survive on Social Security. Customers started recognizing his homegrown resemblance and the rest is recent history. The performer is performing again, moving on and triggering some smiles in the process.
Although, currently, the Colonel — who is also, officially, a Kentucky Colonel — is looking for a new home.
Decker never felt welcome by Fourth Street Live management, and he doesn’t plan to return there. Those in charge of the space never did anything so bold as throw Decker out; instead, they preferred more subtle harassments he says, like saddling Decker with tedious rules and confiscating his equipment. T.G.I.Fridays’ management didn’t have a problem with Decker setting up outside the restaurant, but in e-mails to Decker, Ann Naville, general manager of Fourth Street Live, said she had “not been in complete agreement with [Decker’s] arrangement.” Decker was allowed to stay and perform as long as he remained in one location and didn’t have any handwritten signs. Naville also wrote that Decker would be banished at the first sign of a problem. Decker wrote back with questions about the arrangement, but says he never received a response. The few times he saw Naville face to face were on the street, Decker says, and in these instances she would only tell him he had to move to another area of the adult playground or that Fourth Street Live might have to start charging him rent.
One day in November, Decker came to check on his equipment and found it missing. He had been leaving a rolling kiosk containing his photo printers locked and stowed out of the way in an inner hallway of the complex for a few weeks. The kiosk, about five feet long and peppered with photos of people smiling and posing with the Colonel, would have been difficult to mistake as belonging to anyone other than Decker. Cordish confiscated it, and at first, security officials said they couldn’t find the equipment, Decker says. It wasn’t until he brought a police officer with him to the Cordish offices and spoke with Naville that security was able to locate the kiosk and return it.
Naville could not be reached over the phone, after repeated attempts to contact her for comment. In an e-mail, she wrote that Decker was never approved to perform at Fourth Street Live, a statement that is contradicted by her earlier e-mail to Decker laying out conditions for his stints as the Colonel. As landlord, Cordish is within its legal rights to allow whomever it wants in for almost any reason.
But it begs the question: Why so much concern over a man who looks like Colonel Sanders making people laugh?
Why an entertainment block carved from the heart of a city, in a state with such a connection to Colonel Sanders, wouldn’t want a local impersonator around to provide free photos is something no one seems prepared to answer. Decker certainly is puzzled, and says the company’s treatment of him is a symptom of larger problems. A Cordish spokeswoman also said in an e-mail that the company never received a formal plan from Decker about his activities, but that the “Cordish Company is very supportive of the nostalgic representation and roots the Colonel Sanders brand has in Kentucky.”
Originally, when Decker embraced his similarity to Sanders, he hoped he might become a symbol for Fourth Street Live, someone people who traveled to the block would expect to see, a sight to add local flavor. He isn’t holding out for this any longer. It’s going on two months since Decker has suited up as the Colonel. Although he took the last winter off, this break is different because he is unsure where to go once the weather warms. At times, he is afraid he won’t find a place to return. He has told himself that he needs to venture out and scout new locations. But living alone, he has a tendency to stay inside rather than seek out a new venue. And he faces the frustration of age turning tasks into complicated projects.
Decker had hoped to find a place with City Block, but says he isn’t sure enough crowds gather outside there to support him. The crowds are a necessity, though not from a financial standpoint: At best, Decker never made more than $100 a week, even with some paid appearances with city agencies like Metro Parks. The crowds make it enjoyable. Although Decker was initially hesitant about appearing as the Colonel, he is a self-described people person. Those interactions go farther than any tip. And every performer needs an audience.
Decker says he has had all his citizen’s rights restored, outside of the ability to own a gun, a right that he never wishes to have returned. He doesn’t drink or do drugs, other than the ones prescribed for his health. He is fully reformed in the eyes of the justice system, but the eyes of average people are less forgiving. It’s upsetting, Decker says, especially when he’s performing as Colonel Sanders. One man walked up to him on Fourth Street and before saying anything asked Decker how many banks he’d robbed. Another told Decker he had a hell of an idea using fake bombs in robberies. The man told him they ought to get together sometime. Usually Decker tells such individuals he prefers not to talk about his past. These moments are the quiet consequences he has accepted as part of a life after big mistakes.
“I try, in a way, to go back to the person I was before,” Decker says. “It’s not an easy thing to overcome and evidently I’m never going to be able to get it done.”
Decker purposefully sought out a new city when he came to Louisville. He wanted a place where he could live out what was left of his life far from anyone who knew him. But he encountered strangers who recognized him, people who saw him as something he wasn’t — he isn’t. As an entertainer and a reformed criminal, it’s not an unusual situation for him.
Today, sitting in his apartment or on the street greeting strangers, Don Decker is not a bank robber. Nor is he Colonel Sanders. These are identities that people project onto him.
He is nothing more than an old performer, settling to play the role available.
To learn more about Don Decker, please visit his website at www.dondecker.com.