Oklahoma Governors 1943-1947: Robert S. Kerr (1896-1963)

The first Oklahoma governor born within the present day state, this larger-than-life titan of business and politics rose from an Indian Territory log cabin to build the Kerr-McGee exploration and drilling colossus. He supported, dueled with, and even intimidated U.S. Presidents. He gained the moniker “The Uncrowned King of the Senate” and he received from one Oklahoma newspaper the valedictory, “If Will Rogers was Oklahoma’s most loved citizen, then Kerr was its most powerful.”


Born to devout, tenant farming parents near Ada in the Chickasaw Nation of old Indian Territory, Kerr did everything from teach school at age 16 to sell magazines, in order to manage two-years of college correspondence courses and a year at the OU Law School. After serving in the army during World War I, he experienced the early joys of a family. Those joys, however, soon gave way to a staggering series of tragedies. Between 1920 and 1924, he lost twin daughters at birth, his burgeoning wholesale produce business burned down, and his wife and a new baby both died in childbirth.


Tragedy to Triumph


Leaning on his faith and his work, Kerr pursued the law profession, and in 1925 married Grayce Breene, daughter of a Tulsa oilman. Then he parlayed his legal work and business and deal making brilliance into a decade-long series of exploits that earned him a fortune and launched Oklahoma’s greatest political career.


1926: Negotiated for the opportunity to earn a 20% share of an Oklahoma drilling firm’s stock. He succeeded, and eventually bought the business with his brother-in-law James Anderson and renamed it Anderson-Kerr Drilling Company.


1932: Engineered a remarkable collaboration in the dangerous and expensive Oklahoma City Oilfield between Anderson-Kerr and giant, Ponca City-based Continental Oil. The partnership produced a multimillion-dollar bonanza, and Kerr’s star continued to rocket skyward.


1935: Phillips Petroleum icons Frank Phillips and Boots Adams (OKLAHOMANS 2, Chapter 1) sought his aid for their own entry into the booming OKC field. Again demonstrating his remarkable eye for seeing past short term windfalls to the long term potential, the Oklahoman eschewed cash in lieu of Phillips committing to use Anderson-Kerr as its primary drilling company in the City. Kerr’s persuasion of OKC citizens to support this effort brought colossal rewards to all the participating parties in successive drilling campaigns.


1937: When James Anderson retired, Kerr displayed another rare skill, his nearly unerring eye for talent, as well as his ability to inspire that talent to believe in his shared vision with them. He recruited a new team of partners, including Dean A. McGee, one of the greatest geologists in the history of the petroleum industry, and formed the Kerlyn Oil Company.


1943: Frank Phillips came back to Kerr and McGee, whose geological bullseyes kept Kerlyn on a blazing hot streak. Phillips initiated a decade-long petroleum dynasty between the companies. Kerlyn became the famous Kerr McGee Oil Industries when McGee rose to executive vice president in 1946.


Political Superstar


If Kerr enjoyed one pursuit more than business, it was politics. He had spent years contributing in a myriad of ways to Oklahoma’s Democratic Party in that era of its near-one party dominance. In the same year that Frank Phillips reconnected with him, Kerr won election as governor. The year after he left office, he won election to the U.S. Senate.


Anita Blackwell Robertson well described Kerr’s appearance as he entered the U.S. Senate:


“Among the freshman class of senators, Robert Samuel Kerr looked the least like a statesman. At six feet three inches tall and starved down to 200 pounds when he entered the Senate, Kerr struggled continually to keep weight off. He never drank or smoked, but he was unable to pass up a Dairy Queen, even at 7 a.m., without treating himself to a butter pecan sundae. He wore a shapeless suit that looked as if it had been ordered from a catalog and then slept in. A blue chambray shirt with an exclusive-men’s-store tie, suspenders, and gold Kerr-McGee lapel pin completed the ensemble. Kerr looked more like a small-town prosecuting attorney or a frontier evangelist than the junior senator from Oklahoma.


“But his presence commanded attention. When he appeared on the Senate floor, he seemed to fill the chamber. Kerr was not merely a big man physically. He had a self-assurance that was characteristic of men of strong religious beliefs and great wealth.”


Early deciding that he could accomplish more by building personal alliances with the right colleagues, primarily from the South and the West, Kerr eschewed official legislative leadership roles, other than on committees, where he believed the real power lay. During his 1948-1963 tenure, he headed—officially or behind the scenes—numerous key senatorial committees. When John F. Kennedy, shrewd and observant, became president in January 1961, he immediately recognized Kerr as the indispensable wheel horse in forwarding his diverse policy portfolio.


One journalist opined that Kerr was “the new wagon of the rocky road to (Kennedy’s) New Frontier” program. They collaborated on numerous key projects, including Kennedy’s space program that beat the Soviet Union to the moon, and JFK’s historic 1962 tax cut bill.


Kennedy, meanwhile, according to Kerr biographer Anne Hodges Morgan, recognized “that Kerr saw the completion of the Arkansas River Navigation Project as his personal monument.” The Oklahoman labored for this vast project through the length of his senatorial career.


Though not completed until years after Kerr’s death, the Oklahoman’s labors proved successful in what was eventually known as the McClellan–Kerr Arkansas River Navigation System. It generated billions of dollars of commercial and industrial development in eastern Oklahoma and Arkansas, including connecting the Tulsa suburb of Catoosa on the Arkansas River as an inland waterway port to the Mississippi River.

“He built large reservoirs and dams to be taken care of by the Army Corps of Engineers to generate hydroelectric power,” according to James L. Barrett, who helped write the legislation and worked in a variety of key roles for Kerr from 1960 until the senator’s death. “(And) eventually to build a canal all the way to Tulsa to export wheat and oil by barge around the world.”


Kerr’s one major political defeat was his run for the presidency in the 1952 Democratic primary. Overcoming his personal devastation at the lack of national response from his own party, he forever after trained his sole efforts on Oklahoma.


Cost and Legacy


In the end, Kerr’s greatness and the price it cost him as a person to attain that mantle provide a cautionary lesson. His largely-laudatory biographer Morgan referred more than once to his “arrogance,” “instinct for the jugular,” “bitterness,” and “vindictiveness.” “Often caustic and bruising in debate,” she wrote, “he could be utterly careless of his colleagues’ sensibilities….At times he was almost sadistic in his verbal assaults…”


During a series of interviews with the author before his 2016 passing, Barrett, an Oklahoman who earned a fortune through his successful Sonic and Stars Drive-In Restaurant franchises, regaled Kerr’s abilities and historic stature. He also declared that elements of his public persona were false, at least during his final years. Barrett stated that when he arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1960 to work as Kerr’s assistant senatorial floor leader, he did not find the devout, teetotaling man of faith he had for years revered from a distance:


“I think he was more of a (devout) Baptist in his youth than he was in his later years. He supported John Kennedy for President in 1960, but Baptist preachers he had supported turned on him and wrote him venomous letters for his support of Kennedy. He didn’t understand that, and it changed him a lot. I was there when that happened. He became more obnoxious, he became more profane….


“I think as he got older, he realized that many of his friendships were because of money and success. I don’t think he had hardly any close friends. I don’t think he could ever have become what his image was. I think he gave up on that. I don’t think he wanted to become what his image was. But his image had gotten him elected, so he just let that stay what it was.”


Barrett witnessed Kerr drinking whiskey at parties—“bourbon was his favorite”—recalled frequent accounts of his cursing, and claimed the senator did not attend church during the years Barrett knew him. He recounted other personal improprieties as well, including of a moral nature. Barrett emphasized that he had no intention of smearing Kerr’s memory with these recollections, as he himself did not consider any of them as reflecting poorly on the man.


In the end, Morgan wrote perhaps the most appropriate epitaph for the boy born in a Chickasaw country log cabin who lost his entire young family, then rose to become John F. Kennedy’s indispensable man and “Uncrowned King of the United States Senate”:


“Hatless, in rolled-up shirtsleeves and red galluses, he stood for hours in the blistering Oklahoma sun listening intently to weather-beaten farmers’ hard luck stories about the ravages of wind and drought. Always when he campaigned, but especially in farming and ranching communities, Kerr listened more than he talked. Born into Oklahoma’s rural poverty and raised with a passionate and intense identification with the land, Robert Kerr understood and cared about the problems of the little farmer. When he hunched up his big frame and stuck his face close to a man so he could catch every word, the concern in his eyes was genuine. No amount of artifice could equal the patriarchal compassion Robert Kerr came to feel for his native state. He had offered his talents to the nation, and she had refused; now he intended to devote himself to Oklahoma, and she would flourish. Kerr was a mystifying combination of oil tycoon, calculating politician, and country-store raconteur. Rural Oklahomans traveled miles to see him in a campaign. And more than once they braved flash floods, washed-out roads, and tornadic winds to vote for him.”

 

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