Robert S. Kerr
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
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.
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.
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.”
Robert S. Kerr Museum