Few people have achieved as many milestones in the history of Bowling Green as Joe Denning.
Best known as a current city commissioner, Denning, 73, has also served the community as a police officer, state trooper, interim mayor, school board member and in numerous other capacities.
It is in many of these roles that Denning was a pioneer.
In June 1969, Denning, a Bowling Green native and graduate of High Street High School, was sworn in as the city’s first African-American police officer.
A year later, he left the Bowling Green Police Department and joined Kentucky State Police, becoming only the second African-American trooper in the state.
In 1975, Denning became the first African-American member of the Bowling Green school board, 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 two more terms on the commission from 2007 to 2011 before being appointed as the first African-American mayor of Bowling Green. He replaced then-Mayor Elaine Walker, who resigned after being appointed secretary of state by then-Gov. Steve Beshear. In his many runs for city commission, Denning has regularly been the top vote-getter.
He served in the mayor’s seat through November 2011, when he rejoined the commission after losing a mayoral race to current Mayor Bruce Wilkerson.
Denning, a pioneer by any standard, said he was not driven to take these public service roles by a desire to break barriers but instead his milestones were born out of a passion to serve the community he loves.
“It was just a desire to do those respective jobs,” he told the Daily News.
He said he hopes his career of public service will be an inspiration to others in the city.
“My only hope is that it will encourage others to do the things they want to (and) do it from the heart,” Denning said.
At last week’s city commission meeting, which happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Denning’s swearing-in as a police officer, it was proclaimed Joe Denning Day in the city.
The proclamation naming the day in his honor noted that Denning “will probably continue his service to the City of Bowling Green as long as he has breath in his lungs ... (he) is the most beloved of all elected officials in the City of Bowling Green by virtue of his kindness and common sense.”
It was a fitting tribute to the man who has done so much for the city.