Fifty years ago this month, Joe Denning began an unprecedented series of milestones that saw him become the city’s first African-American police officer, school board member, city commissioner and mayor.
But the remarkable series of firsts did not come so much from a desire to break barriers as they were a result of a passion to serve.
“It was just a desire to do those respective jobs,” he said last week.
After graduating from Bowling Green’s High Street School in 1964, Denning worked for the U.S. Soil Conservation Ser-vice but always wanted to be in law enforcement. When he turned 21, he applied to the Bowling Green Police Department and was hired.
On June 4, 1969, he was sworn in as the city’s first African-American police officer.
In 1970, he left the BGPD and joined Kentucky State Police, becoming the second African-American trooper in the state. “I had always wanted to be a police officer. I had close friends in the (Bowling Green Police) department and who were KSP troopers. I was fortunate to do both,” Denning said.
Denning said he never saw much negative response to his police work, and believes he inspired other African-Americans to enter law enforcement.
A number of other firsts followed his law enforcement career.
Denning became the first African-American member of the Bowling Green school board in 1975, serving through 1991. A year later, he again made history by becoming the first African-American member of the Bowling Green City Commission, serving through 2004. He then served another stint on the commission from 2007 to 2011.
In 2011, Denning was appointed as the first African-American mayor of Bowling Green after then-Mayor Elaine Walker resigned when she was appointed secretary of state by then-Gov. Steve Beshear. He served in the role through November, when he rejoined the commission.
At Tuesday’s city commission meeting, it was proclaimed Joe Denning Day in the city to mark Denning’s contributions to the city.
Denning said he was “taken by surprise” by the honor, even though the audience at the city commission chambers was filled with friends and family who offered various excuses for their presence before Mayor Bruce Wilkerson read the proclamation honoring Denning.
The meeting also featured a video of numerous individuals congratulating Denning for his service.
“That was the greatest part of it,” Denning said.
Wilkerson and Denning were actually opponents in the 2011 mayoral election won by Wilkerson.
Wilkerson, also a former Bowling Green police officer, said Denning “has been a good friend of mine for 35 years.” From a city commissioner standpoint, Wilkerson said he appreciates Denning’s “common-sense approach. He’s a straight shooter. It’s never about a personal agenda.”
With city commissioners serving two-year terms, Denning has had to run for reelection regularly and has often been the top vote-getter.
“I’ve been blessed. ... I have many friends in the city of Bowling Green. They have always supported me and without their support I wouldn’t have accomplished any of” those things, Denning said.
Looking back on his career of service, “my only hope is that it will encourage others to do the things they want to (and) do it from the heart,” Denning said.
And even at age 73, Denning said he has no plans to stop that service anytime soon.
“I’m going to be there forever or until they kick me out,” he said.
– Follow News Director Wes Swietek on Twitter @BGDNgovtbeat or visit bgdailynews.com.