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Robert S. Kerr

Robert Samuel Kerr was born September 11, 1896, in a log cabin near Ada, Indian Territory. His parents, William Samuel and Margaret Kerr, raised a family of seven.

He enrolled in Oklahoma Baptist University at Shawnee while a junior in high school. Kerr also attended East Central State College at Ada, and Oklahoma University at Norman. After serving in the U.S. Army late in World War I, he studied law under an Ada judge and passed the bar exam in 1922.

Kerr’s early adult life was filled with tragedy and great loss.  He and his first wife lost twin daughters at birth.  Their family business burned to the ground.  Three years later, both his wife and infant son died shortly after childbirth.

In 1925, Kerr married Grayce Breene and they had four children: Robert Samuel, Jr.; Breene, Kay, and William. 

Grayce’s family was in the oil business.  Kerr liked to tell people he was a “wife-made man.”  He and a brother-in-law formed the Anderson-Kerr Drilling Company.  After Anderson retired, Kerr persuaded Dean McGee to leave the employ of Phillips Petroleum to become his partner.  This was the beginning of the internationally known Kerr-McGee Corporation.

As a result of his state wide political and civic activities, Kerr won the governor’s race in 1943. One of his campaign slogans claimed, “I’m just like you – only I struck oil.”  He was the state’s first native-born governor.  Kerr’s reign saw the state’s indebtedness of 44 million reduced to zero and he also left the state a surplus of more than 40 million.

Kerr traveled extensively during his time as governor, extolling the virtues of his beloved home state.  He was criticized for this, but he was always careful to pay his own expenses when traveling outside the state. 

Kerr was the first Oklahoma governor to be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948.  (Other members of this freshman Senate group included Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey.)  As Governor, he had witnessed the devastation in Oklahoma and Arkansas caused by flooding of the Arkansas River and its tributaries.  His first bill in Congress created the Arkansas, White and Red River Study Commission, which was the planning stage for the land and water development in this region.  This eventually led to the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation Project, a series of 17 lock and dams making the waterway navigable from the Port of Catoosa near Tulsa in Northeastern Oklahoma to the Gulf of Mexico.

He also worked for the conservation of other natural resources in Oklahoma and the nation.  He credited his pioneer father with saying “To raise a family, you have to have three things – land, wood and water.”  This slogan became the title for Kerr’s book Land, Wood and Water, published in 1960 with an introduction from close friend Lyndon B. Johnson.

Kerr was a staunch Southern Baptist who taught Sunday School classes first in Ada and then Oklahoma City.  He tithed thirty percent of his income.

Standing 6’ 4”, he was an imposing speaker in more ways than one.  In September, 1922, he said from the Senate floor, “I ask no quarter and I give none.”

Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn once said of him “Bob Kerr is the kind of man who would charge hell with a bucket of water and believe he could put it out.”

Shortly before Kerr suffered a fatal heart attack on Jan. 1, 1963, a Washington, D.C., reporter called him the Senate’s richest member and most searing orator and the Saturday Evening Post published an article about him titled “The Uncrowned King of the Senate.”

Sources

Robert S. Kerr Museum archives