Kerr, Robert S. & Grayce Breene

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Daily Oklahoman, The 
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 

From his birth in a log cabin, to a multimillion-dollar fortune and the title of "uncrowned king of the Senate,” Robert S. Kerr's story could rival the against-all-odds story of Horatio Alger.

Along the way to success as an oilman, Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator, Kerr encountered triumph and tragedy in his dramatic role in the history of Oklahoma.

"He has climbed farther from such humble real estate than any member of Congress since Lincoln,” wrote the Associated Press in 1962, shortly before Kerr's death. "He is today one of the most powerful members of the Senate, and some even call him its uncrowned king.”

Kerr was born Sept. 11, 1896, in a log cabin near Ada in Indian Territory. His parents, William Samuel and Margaret Kerr, raised a family of seven. Robert Samuel Kerr was the second born and the first son, according to The Oklahoman archives.

Kerr was raised on a farm and educated in the public schools of Ada, then a town of fewer than 2,500 people. He attended Oklahoma Baptist University, East Central Teachers College and the University of Oklahoma. Kerr taught school for two years before becoming a magazine salesman for Curtis Publishing Co. in 1916.

He then accepted an offer to work in the law office of B. Robert Elliott of Webb City, Mo. Soon after the United States entered World War I, Kerr enlisted for officers' training and was commissioned a second lieutenant and served in a field artillery unit.
Kerr served nine months overseas before returning to Ada to enter the produce business. In 1919, he married Reba Shelton, but the first of a series of tragedies was about to happen. The couple's first children, twin girls, died at birth. Then his produce business burned to the ground in 1921.

Kerr began working in law, in the office of Judge J. F. McKeel of Ada. Kerr passed the bar examination in 1922, became McKeel's partner and began to sharpen the oratorical skills that would serve him in good stead as a politician.

But Kerr would again face tragedy when his wife and son died in childbirth in 1924. Kerr was inconsolable and vowed never to remarry, according to the Kerr exhibit at the Carl Albert Center at the University of Oklahoma.

Kerr buried himself in his work but found love again. The day after Christmas in 1925, he married Grayce Breene, the daughter of a Tulsa oil man. They had four children: Robert Samuel Kerr Jr., Breene Kerr, Kay Kerr Clark and William Graycen Kerr.
son: Kerr Jr., Robert S.

While working with McKeel, he became associated with a company engaged in oil well drilling. He became an attorney for Dixon Brothers Drilling Co. in Ada, where his brother-in-law, Jim Anderson, was in charge of drilling.

In 1929, he entered an oil partnership with Anderson and formed Anderson and Kerr Drilling Co. Kerr moved from Ada to Oklahoma City in 1931 to work full time in the oil business.

The firm changed names in 1937, becoming Kerlyn Oil Co. when R.H. Lynn and Dean McGee joined. In 1946, the company took the name Kerr-McGee, and Kerr was named president.

He accepted the job as Kerr-McGee's chairman of the board of directors in 1954.

Kerr's personal wealth in 1942 was estimated at $10 million.
He was known for giving back to the community and started campaigns that gave Oklahoma City two modern YMCA buildings. He also helped the Red Cross and raised $400,000 for an orphanage.

Recognizing Kerr's ability to organize, state Democrat Party leaders selected him as national committee chairman in 1940. The allure of politics remained with him, and in 1942, Kerr became the first native-born citizen to serve as Oklahoma governor.

"I'm just like you, only I struck oil,” was Kerr's campaign slogan. After he was elected, he took the state from a debt of $44 million to a surplus of $40 million.
In 1944, he delivered a rousing keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, and was part of the coalition that got Harry S. Truman named as the vice-presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket.
He was elected to the U.S. Senate for a six-year term that started Jan. 3, 1949, and was the first Oklahoma governor to be elected to the Senate. He was re-elected in 1954 and 1960.

During his tenure as U.S. senator, he worked to get the McClellan-Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System developed.

Kerr became a published author in 1960 with his book titled "Land, Wood and Water,” which expressed his views on the importance of conservation of natural resources. He also was guest editor for a day at the Wichita (Kan.) Beacon, where he wrote two editorials, "Discriminatory Freight Rates” and "The Industrial Development of Kansas and Oklahoma.”
Oklahoma historian, attorney and author Bob Burke wrote "Mr. Water,” a biography on Robert S. Kerr Jr. He has documented the Kerrs' dedication to natural resource conservation. He thinks the elder Kerr was instrumental on making our state what it is now.
"Bob Kerr was the uncrowned ‘King of the U.S. Senate.' Even though he served a relatively short term in the Senate, he was so well-respected that younger senators did not dare tell him ‘no' when he asked for their support on critical bills,” Burke said. "If Bob Kerr would have lived long enough, the Red River would be navigable.”
Kerr was also a devout Baptist, Sunday school teacher and member of the Masons and American Legion. He was an avid fisherman.

Kerr served in the U.S. Senate until his death of a heart attack Jan. 1, 1963. He was initially buried at his birthplace near Ada, but in 2006, family members decided to move his remains to Rose Hill Burial Park in Oklahoma City. A memorial and his childhood cabin remain at the Ada site.

Robert S. Kerr represented Oklahoma in the U.S. Senate from 1949 until his death in 1963.


Also see Kerr, Robert S.





Sources:  good faith fair use of sources stated above

Compiled, transcribed and submitted by Marti Graham, Oklahoma County, OKGenWeb Coordinator, November 2007.


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