Robert Samuel Kerr, oil entrepreneur, governor, and U.S. Senator, began life with all the trappings of an American folk hero. He was born September 11, 1896, in a log cabin in the Chickasaw Nation, Indian Territory, near the present town of Ada. Kerr's parents, tenant farmers William Samuel and Margaret Eloda Wright Kerr, infused their eldest son with a passionate love for the land, a boundless capacity for hard work, and a driving ambition to succeed in life. He also inherited their political and religious convictions, with an allegiance to the Democratic Party and membership in the Southern Baptist Church defining his life. Kerr taught a Sunday school class regularly while holding public office. He also kept his youthful pledge not to drink alcohol, and his command of Scripture was legendary among his colleagues in the U.S. Senate.
Kerr attended Ada public schools and after graduation taught in a country classroom to earn money to finance a two-year correspondence course from East Central Normal School, which he completed in 1911. Seeing the practice of law as the quickest route to financial success and elective office, Kerr borrowed $350 to finance a year at the University of Oklahoma School of Law. When the money ran out, he sold magazine subscriptions for the Curtis Publishing Company and began to hone the persuasive skills which would one day earn him the title "Uncrowned King of the Senate."
Commissioned a second lieutenant during World War I, Kerr never saw combat. Following the war he married Reba Shelton on December 5, 1919, and settled down to work as a wholesale produce merchant in Ada. Despite a happy marriage and a growing business, Kerr experienced a series of personal tragedies in the early 1920s. His twin daughters died at birth in 1920, the produce business literally went up in flames in 192l, and his beloved Reba and a baby son died in childbirth in 1924. Devastated but not destroyed by his personal and financial losses, Kerr found solace in hard work. Early in life he had told his father that he had three goals in life: a family, a million dollars, and the governorship of Oklahoma, in that order. In December l925 he started a new family by marrying Grayce Breene of Tulsa. They had four children.
Although Kerr had entered a law partnership with a prominent judge in 1922, he saw other avenues to wealth. After several years of accepting shares in oil drilling leases in exchange for his legal services, he gave up his law practice. In 1929 he established Anderson-Kerr Drilling Company with his brother-in-law. Six years later he began a long and profitable collaboration with Phillips Petroleum Company that introduced him to geologist Dean A. McGee and led to the establishment of Kerr-McGee Oil Industries.
But politics fascinated Kerr as much as business, and he never missed an opportunity to strengthen his ties within the Democratic Party at the state and national levels. His business experience had taught him the value of knowing every level of an organization's activity in order to discover new talent and to appraise performance. From 1919 until the end of his life he served at various times as a delegate to precinct, county, and state conventions, as well as precinct chair and inspector of elections. As his personal wealth grew, he became a generous and consistent contributor to Democratic candidates. During the 1930s he began to receive appointments to public service, first as a special justice of the Oklahoma Supreme Court in 1931 and in 1935 as Gov. Ernest W. Marland's appointee to the governor's unofficial pardon and parole board. By 1940 he had been elected to the Democratic National Committee where he would become the party's most influential fundraiser for more than two decades.
Kerr was elected Oklahoma's first native-born governor in 1942. Two years later he was keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention where he helped forge the strategy that secured the vice-presidential nomination for Harry S. Truman. That alliance with national politicians was the beginning of a series of relationships that helped him secure roads, dams, military installations, and industrial projects for his beloved state.
Kerr's administration as governor marked the beginning of a new era in Oklahoma political history. In contrast to the turbulent, often violent politics that characterized the early decades of statehood, the Kerr administration introduced a sense of dignity and maturity into state government. As chief executive he stabilized the state's finances and worked to develop a diversified industrial base. He deliberately cultivated harmony with the legislature and quietly squelched vendettas when they threatened to weaken his administration. Instead of denouncing opponents with "Wild West rhetoric" as his predecessors had done, he won their cooperation with reason, a great deal of personal attention, and some well-placed patronage. When his tenure ended, Oklahoma was free of debt and poised to take advantage of the seemingly unlimited possibilities to develop and modernize through federal largess in the postwar period.
Although he had achieved his life goals of a family, great wealth and the governorship by age fifty-six, Kerr sought national prominence and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948. As a member of the Senate's freshman class of 1949, he joined an exceptional group of Democratic colleagues--Paul Douglas, Estes Kefauver, Hubert Humphrey, Clinton P. Anderson, and Lyndon Baines Johnson. These senators would influence virtually every national issue of the 1950s and l960s. With an unerring instinct for the sources of power, Kerr allied with the powerful southern committee chairs and became the protege of Richard Russell of Georgia, the acknowledged leader of the Senate Club. Kerr quickly recognized that effective committee work was the key to influence, and he used his chairmanship of the Rivers and Harbors Subcommittee of the Public Work Committee to dispense favors and collect obligations. Since virtually every congressional district contained a waterway or a farm pond, the path to federal dollars led directly into Kerr's bailiwick. Before the end of his first term he had also obtained coveted positions on the Senate Finance Committee and the Democratic Policy Committee.
In 1950 Kerr gained widespread recognition through his leadership of the forces trying to exempt independent oil and gas producers from Federal Power Commission regulation. That recognition fueled an ill-fated run for the Democratic nomination and earned him the reputation of a parochial, special interest politician. Unable to shed that stereotype, he decided to exploit it. Denied the presidency, he became a power within the Senate and concentrated on legislation designed to benefit Oklahoma.
Kerr left a distinctive imprint on national as well as local issues through his successful efforts to broaden and strengthen Social Security coverage and to develop the manned space program. As chair of the powerful Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee in the 1960s, he was indispensable to the enactment of the Kennedy administration's moon program. When Kennedy's legislative initiatives on trade and tax legislation faltered because of weakened Senate leadership, Kerr became Kennedy's "shadow leader," harvesting the necessary votes through a combination of his own institutional power and his dominating personality. At the zenith of his power and prominence in the Senate, he suffered a mild heart attack but never recovered. He died January 1, 1963, in Washington, D.C.
Had Kerr chosen his own epitaph, it probably would have been the assessment of his career as businessman, governor, and senator that appeared in the Cushing (Oklahoma) Daily Citizen on the day of his burial, "If Will Rogers was Oklahoma's most loved citizen, then Kerr was its most powerful."
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 2 January 1963. John S. Ezell, Innovations in Energy: The Story of Kerr-McGee (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979). Robert Samuel Kerr Papers, Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma. Anne Hodges Morgan, Robert S. Kerr: The Senate Years (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1977). New York Times, 2 January 1963.
Anne Hodges Morgan
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