The Ballad of Bob Kerr

by Steve Gerkin


The story of Robert S. Kerr begins in the sticks and ends in the stars. Born in a tiny, log cabin near the trading post of Ada, Kerr overcame grievous tragedies to become, remarkably, the first native son to sit as Governor, serving from 1943–47. With a booming voice and quick wit, Kerr promoted Oklahoma with a vengeance, aiming a particularly wilting sarcasm at Steinbeck’s “Okie” portrayal. [1]

The violent Indian Territory of the early 1900s made sturdy people whose off spring developed a resilient sinew often based on spiritual values. Baptist hell-fire scorched Bob’s soul with numerous passages that served him the length of his life. He laced his political speeches with them, impressed folks gathered around the potbelly stove in the center of father Sam’s produce store in Ada, and, later on the floor of the United States Senate. As a youth, he added to his against-the-grain persona by signing a church-school promise to never drink alcohol.

His father fired Bob’s inquisitive mind with quotes from William Jennings Bryan speeches, emphasizing that the young Kerr was, indeed, a pioneer’s child near to nature’s heart. Raised in waist-high grass along the blue Clear Boggy Creek, with plentiful trees and abundant wildlife, Kerr pledged to promote the doctrine of natural resource stewardship.

A pre-teen Kerr told anyone who would listen, “I want to be a very successful lawyer, make plenty of money, marry a beautiful and good girl, have eight children, and live in a fi rst-class house.” During these school years, Kerr practiced smiling seemingly non-stop. Friends liked it and dubbed him “Smilin’ Bob.” Kerr took his smile with him when he was shipped to Europe for the last days of WWI.

Following a short stint in the Army, during which Kerr admitted to his mother that he fell off the wagon once celebrating to excess with champagne while orating the troops, he returned home looking for love. One Sunday, he strolled into the drugstore for some ice cream and found Reba Shelton.

In true Kerr fashion, he proposed to Shelton and married her post-haste. He dreamed of children, practicing law, getting rich, and running for office.

Tragedy struck early when, less than two years into it, their twin girls died at birth. The loss was followed by a pre-Thanksgiving fire that completely destroyed Bob and Reba’s produce store. Kerr said it, “Left me more than broke.” Bob had turned to selling life insurance when a local judge named McKeel helped train him for the bar exam.

In the end, Kerr would practice little law. With Reba pregnant again, he canvassed the state, focusing on his newly elected and highly political position as state commander of the American Legion, one of the most influential nonprofit groups in the United States. Reba quit teaching to have their baby in 1924. Later that year, mother and child died in delivery.

Smilin’ Bob fell silent. Vowing a life of isolation, he retreated to a single room with a few furnishings. Turning inward, he sought strength from hours of Bible reading and soul searching. Some say he reflected on his family-based, Scottish heritage that featured strong sense of duty, courage of conviction and a God-given right to speak one’s mind. Having no vocal outlet for his emotions, Kerr wrote darkpoetry to his dear departed.

Contacted about the purported poems, son Bill Kerr, of Wilson, Wyoming, searched through family files. Th ere on a sheet of faded paper with several folds, carefully typed with proper indentions, were two poems never shared with the public, never published. The poem at the top of the page, written to his wife, entitled “My Little Girl,” was dated February 22, 1924. It hints that he feels his life may be nearly over. It starts,

“I am weak, I am broken and faded.
And the end of my journey is near.
But I know my darling is waiting
On this side of God’s Heavenly pier.”

Kerr continues his four-stanza homage, writing of his loneliness, the sun disappearing into shadows and the death of his heart. “The light of her love,” pines the forlorn husband, is “The brightest star in God’s sky.”

The loss of three children and cherished wife during two birthing episodes left him alone with his thoughts. Three days after typing the ode to Reba, he returned to the typewriter, ending “My Family” with the same typed signature, Rob’t S. Kerr and the date.

“I have a family celestial somewhere
with the angel bands …
Am there I can see my darling, my girl
with her starlit eyes,
And there I can see my babies, and hear
their gladsome cries.”

Kerr tells of Reba dying in the evening shade,

“Two little girls had left us and then our
little boy,
And they waited their mother’s coming
with indescribable joy.”

A year later, in 1925, Kerr emerged from the darkness, in need of exercise.

He soon began anew with one Grayce Breene, a tall blonde he met at the local tennis courts. Kerr called her his “Lady Luck.” He courted her with a series of horseback rides and married her three months later. Breene, the daughter of a wealthy Tulsa oilman, was just the tonic. Soon, Kerr quit law and, as payment for legal services, took over a few small oil leases.

Under the umbrella of the newly formed Anderson-Kerr Drilling Company—which he opened with Grayce’s brother, Jim Anderson—Kerr bought two wells for $5,000 cash and $25,000 in notes. It got the attention of Frank Phillips and “Boots” Adams, who hired Anderson-Kerr to drill many of Phillips’ oil leases. Kerr was the contact man, glad-handing landowners, convincing t hem with his smile and his guile to lease him their oil rights. During this time, Kerr met a Phillips geological engineer, Dean McGee.

Kerr knew that farmers had to get out of the mud to get their products to market. Knowing cheap road oil mixed with dirt formed temporary asphalt, the confi dent Kerr bought a small road oil plant for Kerr-McGee.

Shortly after statehood, Kerr’s father campaigned for county clerk of the new Pontotoc County. Bob traveled town to town with his father, hearing dozens of stump speeches and loving the thrill of applause—it seemed like show business. His father won and gave up his produce store. Losing a subsequent re-election, the family’s only source of income dried up. Sam implored Bob, “Before you go into politics, be sure that you are financially secure, that you can take care of your family.” He never forgot the lesson. [2]

Armed with his statewide team of political workers won over during his American Legion tenure, Kerr ran for governor with agriculture and resource protection at the top of his agenda. The populace loved the jovial candidate with the grin and self-deprecating humor that lit up their grim lives. They loved his humble beginnings and took pride in his financial ascendency.

During the 1942 campaign, Kerr told them, “I’m just like you, only I struck oil.” During his governorship, he formed an alliance with Arkansas Governor Ben Laney, with whom he created a commission to explore ways to harness the flooding potential of the Arkansas River Basin. Working in a quiet, bi-partisan manner, and eschewing the former Wild West political antics of name-calling and verbal assault, Kerr erased $36 million in state government debt by enforcing his austere plan of economic puritanism. Using his own money to avoid criticism of frivolous spending of state government funds, he travelled the length of the country promoting Oklahoma products and resources.

* * *

An elderly Brooklyn woman, Mrs. Herman Brandner, read a newspaper account that described a competition between governors to sell war bonds in which Governor Kerr bet sorghum and pecans against Nebraska hogs. She wrote Kerr asking if he could get some for her. Always mindful of a good publicity event, on his next trip to New York, Kerr presented her a gallon of “Governor Kerr’s Sorghum Molasses.” The press flash bulbs captured the moments and writers dubbed Kerr with another nickname, “Sorghum Bob.” He left the governor’s office as a very popular man and the winner of the Nebraska hog. The war bonds challenge symbolized Kerr’s sense of provincialism. Seeing the Statue of Liberty from his post-war ship created an emotional impact that heightened his nationalistic fervor. Kerr became evangelistic about his allegiance to the social and financial improvement of Oklahomans. The adoration heaped upon him during his governorship motivated him to take his prowess to Washington D.C.

Kerr entered the 1948 Senate race on a slogan of “Land, Wood and Water.” During his Senate campaign, his exasperated opponent, state Senator Ross Rizley of Guymon, told the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce that Kerr’s slogan should be changed to “Land, Wood, Wind and Water,” taking a jab at Kerr’s blowhard style. Many thought his Arkansas River basin plans unworkable and dream-like. Most importantly, President Truman believed in Kerr’s daydream. During a two-day train campaign through Oklahoma, Truman spoke 21 times in favor of Kerr and his vision. Yet, the Democratic party’s proposed civil rights platform plank was considered the biggest hurdle in Kerr’s Senate race. Kerr assuaged voters, saying he would vote in accord with the laws of Oklahoma. Although the Oklahoma law supported segregation, virtually all of the 70,000 black Oklahoma voters cast their ballots for Bob. According to some, they provided the margin of victory and Governor Kerr became the first Oklahoma governor to win a U.S. Senate seat. Kerr was a Washington outsider from the getgo. He ignored the tradition of freshman Senators being “seen and not heard” when he pressed for eastern Oklahoma flood and navigation projects. Bucking an even greater tide, he ignored the mixing of business and pleasure that was the Congressional cocktail circuit, telling anyone within earshot, “Alcohol has cost more money, destroyed more property, killed more people … than all the wars in the entire history of the human race.” He threw his own party, offering lemonade, Bermuda onions, Oklahoma barbeque, and hillbilly singers. Reviving the Wild West political modus operandi, Kerr’s barbs toward fellow Senators were notoriously thorny. Reminiscent of ancestors in 1511 who avenged the murder of their father, Sir Robert Kerr of Cessford, his namesake sacked his senatorial antagonists. Though the garb of Sir Robert differed
substantially from that of Smilin’ Bob.

Regularly wearing a baggy suit that may have doubled as pajamas, a “feedsack blue” shirt and designer tie, suspenders and a gold Kerr-McGee [3] lapel pin, Kerr could unleash tough verbal uppercuts at fellow Senators in a legislative room usually quite respectful. Once he shouted out that Senator Homer Capehart of Indiana was a “rancid tub of ignorance.” During his first year in the Senate, Kerr was of the opinion that his fellow Oklahoma Senator, 72-year-old Elmer Thomas, was of no value to Oklahomans. Going after his own, Kerr unleashed a withering verbal attack on Thomas that left Senators shuddering. A United Press International reporter wrote that, following a Kerr lashing, opponents walked away bleeding. His transition from a mild country politician to a Congressional wrecking ball seemed complete.

Kerr’s aggressive, often abrasive, manner regularly placed more Oklahoma-biased as well as oil- and gas-oriented pork into new laws. Kerr admitted without hesitation that he used his legislative acumen to benefit his native state and her oil industry. He cared less about his detractors, snarling, “If Oklahomans didn’t like it, they wouldn’t elect me.”

Milton Viorst of the Washington Post wrote, “Kerr… freely and publicly expressed his conviction that any man in the Senate who didn’t use his position to make money was a sucker. Kerr was the chief of the wheelers-and-dealers.” After his failed bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1952, a deflated Kerr openly re-committed all his legislative muscle to advance the oil and gas community, including Kerr-McGee, and Oklahoma’s natural resources. Bruised and bloodied from his run-up to the Democratic convention, a hardened Kerr expanded his growing reputation as a narrow-minded, special interest politician.

His bulldog tactics escalated, intimidating opponents and advancing his reputation as a take-no-prisoners debater. Broadening his base of influence, Kerr belonged to a band of business and bureaucratic conspirators that helped establish him as Oklahoma’s most powerful citizen and the ruler of the U.S. Senate. The Suite 8F Group met in a room of the same name in the Lamar Hotel in Houston. The closed fraternity included politicos Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of the Treasury, Robert B. Anderson, lobbyist Bobby Baker, cotton entrepreneur Billie Sol Estes, and numerous prominent oilmen including Robert S. Kerr. So that they could protect their Texas oil interests, their mission was to orchestrate the political activities of Southern right-wing politicians and businessmen. They protected their profi ts through united efforts to keep the price of oil as high as possible. Steeled by the spirit of 8F Group, the firebrand Kerr did his part on the Senate floor.

In early December 1962, near the end of his 14th year in the Senate, Kerr was admitted to Bethesda Hospital for a possible respiratory infection. On New Year’s Day 1963, laughing with his D.C. physician and nurse about the saga of his first trip to New York City, Kerr, the reigning King of the Senate, fell backwards onto his hospital bed, lifeless to the world. The teetotaling, out-spoken, homegrown icon from the Chickasaw Territory had intimidated his last politician, preached his last Baptist Sunday school lesson and downed his final DQ butter-pecan sundae. The 14-year Senate term of folksy, “Smilin’ Bob” ended without defeat. After lying in the Rose Hill Mausoleum in Oklahoma City for less than a year, Robert Samuel Kerr returned to his original homestead two miles south of Ada. In full view of his beloved Pecan Valley and his restored log cabin birthplace, Kerr was buried atop a hill in a simple, stone vault.


1. Calling out John Steinbeck on the floor of the US Congress in 1940 as a “putrid-minded-writer,” Congressman Lyle Boren—father of former governor and University of Oklahoma President David Boren—admonished Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath portrayal of the tenant farmers during the Dust Bowl Era. Describing it as a “dirty, lying, filthy manuscript … low and vulgar,” Boren decried the tagging of noble, calloused Oklahomans as “Okies.” He called Wrath “A lie, a damnable lie, a black, in- fernal creation of a twisted, distorted mind.” Boren declared to the nation and to God, “That all citizens of America could be as clean and noble and fine as the Oklahomans that Steinbeck labeled ‘Okies.’ ”

2. The advice of Kerr’s father formed Bob’s life plan. If Sam said it, then it must be so. His goals of a marriage with a brood of kids, a law degree, the governorship and wealth came from Sam’s vision for his son. His friendly interaction with people came from observing his father’s demeanor with store customers and campaign trail posturing.

3. The ever-smiling, glad-handing Kerr had a personal value between $35 and 50 million during his time in the Senate through his position as Kerr-McGee chairman of the board directing the inorganic chemical, petroleum and natural gas exploration programs. Dean McGee was the geological mastermind who created the firm’s technological innovations. The most notable was the establishment of the first commercial offshore oil well.

Originally published in This Land Vol. 3, Issue 21. Nov. 1, 2012.