Robert S. Kerr
BY Tulsa World
Feb 2, 1963
Sen. Robert S. Kerr, Oklahoma’s homespun statesman, died Tuesday, ending a career that stretched from a log cabin near Ada to immense wealth and national leadership.
Sen. Kerr, 66, collapsed while seated on the edge of his bed in a Washington, D.C., hospital and died minutes later.
Death came at the top of his career during which the senator apparently reached every major goal of his life.
Considered to be one of the most powerful men in the nation’s most powerful body – the U.S. Senate – Kerr had served two years of his third six-year term.
Death was attributed to a blockage of an artery to the heart. The Senator had been in Doctors Hospital in Washington since Dec. 16 when he entered for treatment of a respiratory infection.
Doctors later said he had suffered a narrowing of the coronary artery and would be kept in bed for treatment.
The senator had been “showing steady improvement” and was believed to be on the road to recovery.
He had just finished telling a story to Dr. James L. Keating when he collapsed.
The doctor tried artificial respiration and drugs but could not revive the senator.
The death of Sen. Kerr will have an effect on the Kennedy administration’s program for the 88 th Congress.
President Kennedy had counted on the Oklahoma senator to help steer his already-controversial tax cut through the Senate.
A gifted orator who many times devastated his opponents with scathing humor, Kerr quickly gained a reputation as a rough-and-tumble debater in the Senate. He carried the ball for President Kennedy on several pieces of legislation in the 87th Congress, but bucked the president and won on the Medicare plan, defeated by a 52-48 vote in the Senate.
He often was called the “uncrowned king of the Senate.”
Kerr himself declared he had been crowned often by one of his colleagues, but with a “crown of thorns.”
The senator did not live to see the completion of what probably was the biggest project of his career – navigation of the Arkansas River.
But his work on the program has assured its completion. Several dams are under construction in Oklahoma and Arkansas which will make navigation of the river feasible.
The senator many times declared low-cost river transportation would make the Arkansas River basin another Ohio river valley industrial complex.
Kerr’s 14 years in the Senate had given him enormous prestige and seniority.
He was chairman of the Senate Space Committee and No. 2 man on the all important Finance Committee.
Sen. Kerr was born Sept. 11, 1896, in a log cabin near Ada in Indian Territory.
He was the second of seven children of William Samuel and Margaret Wright-Kerr.
Reared on a farm, he attended Ada public schools and Oklahoma Baptist University, East Central Teachers College and the University of Oklahoma.
He taught school for two years and in 1916 became a magazine salesman for Curtis Publishing Co.
He served nine months in Europe during World War I as a second Lieutenant.
After the war, Kerr studied law and passed the Oklahoma bar examination in 1922.
His early goals, it is said, were a family, a million dollars and the governorship of the state.
He accomplished the millionaire’s status in the oil industry. Allying with James L. Anderson, he made his fortune in the Oklahoma City oil field on what some called daring speculation.
When Anderson retired in 1935, Dean McGee, considered on of the top geologists in the in industry, was persuaded to join him and together they built the sprawling Kerr-McGee firm which now reaches into uranium and potash as well as oil.
Kerr’s wealth was estimated variously between $35 million and $50 million and he was reputedly the Senate’s wealthiest member.
While he was amassing a fortune, Kerr also was putting together a political dynasty.
In 1942, he was elected governor of Oklahoma, and came to national attention in 1944 when he was the keynote speaker for the national Democratic convention.
Kerr was the first native of Oklahoma to be governor.
The big (6 feet, 3 inches and 220 pounds) senator first was elected to the Senate in 1948 and was re-elected in 1954 and 1960.
First Native Chief
A terrific campaigner, Kerr’s keen intelligence and sharp wit made him equally at home at Oklahoma farm towns or the White House.
Wearing the galluses that became a trademark, he stumped the state and gathered in the votes.
From the start of his service in the Senate, Kerr’s slogan was “Land, Wood and Water,” and he recently wrote a book under that title.
He sought and received committee assignments which he felt would be helpful in developing this program for Oklahoma.
The first bill he introduced set up an inter-agency study committee for the Arkansas, White and Red rivers. This resulted in the first comprehensive survey integrating the activities of the various departments of the Federal government and the affected states in bringing about a comprehensive plan for the conservation, development and utilization of the natural resources of the region, including Oklahoma.
Kerr also was chairman of the subcommittee on Flood Control and Rivers and Harbors of the Public Works Committee: Joint Committee on Internal Revenue Taxation, Joint Committee on Reduction of Non-essential Federal Expenditures and the Democratic Policy Committee.
Sen. Kerr was a life-long Baptist and an avowed personal dry. He once stunned Washington by denouncing the cocktail party and never served alcoholic drinks in his own home.
He had been a Baptist Sunday School teacher at Ada, Oklahoma City, and Washington for more than 30 years.
He was named president of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma in 1944 and held many other denominational posts.
Kerr married the former Grayce Breen, a one-time Tulsa resident, in December of 1925 and they have three sons, Robert S. Jr., Breene M., and William G., and a daughter, Mrs. Lowell Clark.
All his children had gone to Washington to visit him but had returned home believing their father was recuperating.
His wife had remained in Washington but was not present when he died.
The children returned to Washington by plane Tuesday night from Oklahoma City. They were accompanied by their spouses; Dean McGee, Kerr’s Oklahoma City oil partner, and Mrs. Aubrey Kerr of Ada, a sister-in-law.
Aides to the late senator said sergeant-at-arms Joseph C. Duke would arrange air accommodations for a Senate delegation to attend the funeral when arrangements are completed.
Robert S. Kerr