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
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
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
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
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
"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
Sources: good faith fair use of sources stated above
Compiled, transcribed and submitted by Marti Graham, Oklahoma County, OKGenWeb Coordinator,