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William Alexander Robb Kerr, M.A., Ph.D., LL.D., F.R.S.C.

Officer d'Instruction Publique. Chevalier Legion d'Honneur


By J. M. Macheachran

On September 21st., 1909, I arrived in Strathcona, now South Edmonton, and took up residence in the Strathcona Hotel. Two days after my arrival I met in the rotunda of the hotel a refined-looking gentleman who bore all the hall-marks of a University Professor. I spoke to him and asked if he happened to be one of the new Professors expected at the University. He replied, "Yes, my name is Kerr, and are you one also?" The conversation which followed was the beginning of a friendship that remained warm and uninterrupted till Dr. Kerr's death on the evening of Friday, January 19th, 1945.

Dr. Kerr had just arrived from New York where he had been a Professor of Romance Languages in Adelphi College. I had just arrived from Paris where I had been a student at the Sorbonne. Strathcona, of course, presented to the eye a somewhat different picture from that of New York or Paris, but to the imagination of the educational pioneer the site of the new University on the imposing banks of the Saskatchewan presented an inspiring vision of the possibilities to come. For here in the centre of a new Province, rich in its natural resources and in the romantic beauty of its undulating prairies, its rivers and lakes, and its foothills and mountains, was to grow up an institution of learning that would minister to the prosperity and happiness of a kindly forward-looking people whose spirit was so admirably reflected in the genial personality of its first Prime Minister and our late Chancellor, Dr. Rutherford.

The first enthusiasm of our new adventure was greatly augmented when, along with Dr. Lehman, also a new-comer, we joined the little band of adventurers who, under the vigorous leadership and infectious enthusiasm and optimism of Dr. Tory, had in the previous year encamped in the upper story of the Duggan Street (now Queen Alexandra) School, gathered together all the students available, and started the new University on its way. The second year, the University of Alberta occupied more com-modious quarters on the upper floor of Strathcona High School. The staff consisted of the President, Dr. Tory, Dr. W. H. Alexander, Dr. Broadus, Professor Edwards, Dr. Kerr, Dr. Lehman and myself. The President's Secretary was the very amiable Jennie Carmichael, who later became the wife of one of our first students, now the Honourable Mr. Chief Justice Howson. That year was a strenuous one, but it was most stimulating. Our Faculty meetings were like family gatherings in which wit and humour mingled freely with the serious discussion of present problems and future plans.

The impression I formed of Dr. Kerr during this year — and it grew on me the more closely I came to associate with him — was that he was a man of particularly fine feeling, of kindly disposition, and of a well-rounded personality. He was in all respects a gentleman in the best sense of that term. As compared with most men with whom for a number of years I had associated in the academic world of conflicting ideas, he was most tolerant in his general attitude and generously appreciative of other people's point of view. He was one of the best products of the University of Toronto, where he graduated with high honours and later won his M.A. degree, and of Harvard University from which he received his Doctorate. At a time when, no doubt stimulated by memories of ancient athletic rivalries, loyalty to one's Alma Mater was characteristic of most University men who hailed from Toronto, McGill, and Queen's, Dr. Kerr was never disposed to exalt the merits of his own University above those of its rivals, or to manifest that sense of superiority which Harvard men were sometimes said to have difficulty in concealing. He had, before entering Harvard, served as a Master at Upper Canada College under the distinguished Principalship of Dr. Parkin, who had been a student at Oxford and who later became first Secretary of the Rhodes Scholarship Trust, and there he associated on very friendly terms with graduates of other Canadian Universities and of Old Country Universities. He also studied for some time in the Sorbonne, Paris, the cosmopolitan atmosphere of which was a certain antidote to all narrowness in one's College loyalties. He was born and bred a Presbyterian but later found the Anglican Church more congenial. Here, again, he remained always broad-minded and genuinely appreciative of other faiths. He had many warm friends among Roman Catholics and for a number of years served as a member of the Board of St. Joseph's College which, when he retired from it, presented him with an illuminated address in appreciation of his sympathetic co-operation during its most difficult years. Dr. Kerr was in politics a Conservative and a great admirer of Sir John A. Macdonald, but his politics never affected his friendships nor did he ever become unduly ruffled in political discussions in which he was by no means averse from participating.

One of the severest tests to which the friendly understanding of two people may be subjected is perhaps an extended journey together — and particularly in Europe where one experiences considerable annoyance on account of inefficient baggage arrangements, frequent custom inspections, and the difficulty of measuring out the proper tips to the various kind hotel waiters and porters who line up at the door to bid a bon voyage. After five years of very fine companionship, that test came. In May, 1914, Dr. Kerr and I sailed from New York to Naples. We spent ten delightful weeks on the continent, during the latter part of which we witnessed the clouds gathering on the horizon foreboding the tragedy of the Great War. We were in Venice when the Archduke of Austria and his morganatic wife were assassinated, and in Vienna on the day of their funeral. On our trip through Germany, we saw long columns of artillery and infantry continuously on the march, and we arrived in England just a few days before the storm broke. We were on Trafalgar Square the night on which England declared war on Germany, and during the next three or four weeks we saw the recruiting of Kitchener's army and the preparation for the great struggle which followed. In spite of the tragic ending of that summer I still cherish delightful memories of our travels, and one of the happiest of these is the fact that never for a moment was there the slightest unpleasantness or tension in our relations. The credit for such an unusual harmony I attribute to the even temperament of my companion. We had, of course, many interests in common. We spent much time in the Art Galleries. We visited many places noted for their beauty or historical interest. We had several evenings of Grand Opera. Dr. Kerr professed little knowledge of music, and I strove to enlighten him in discourses on the composition of the Orchestra, the beauties of the tone traceries of the Italian composers as contrasted with the heroic measures of Wagner, and the like. He listened to my disquisitions with patience and apparent appreciation, but I always suspected that it was his natural kindness that was uppermost in that appreciation. At any rate, the music of his soul seemed to find a more spontaneous expression in the rhythm of the French language which he mastered in a remarkable degree. He was at home in the field of modern literature, and I profited much from his discussions of Dante, Moliere, and others of his favourite authors. He was also well informed on those events of European History which added to the interest of our travels. We climaxed our visit to England with a week of Shakespeare's plays at Stratford-on-Avon.

As Head of the Department of Modern Languages, Dr. Kerr chose as his associates men of high linguistic and literary qualifications, who were encouraged to pursue their own methods in teaching. He strove earnestly to encourage the study of the French language and literature, including the literature of French Canada, and to create a better understanding of the French Canadian people. His efforts were much appreciated not only by the French Canadians but by the French Government which honoured him by naming him an Officer d'Instruction Publique and Chevalier Legion d'Honneur. He was a man of scholarly attainments and had acquired a fine appreciation of the elegance of the French language which he spoke fluently. He worked for a number of years on the life of Margaret of Navarre which he hoped to publish, but administrative duties and indifferent health prevented the realization of that hope.

In 1914 Dr. Kerr was appointed Dean of the Faculty of Arts. He was admirably fitted for the position and filled it with distinction. He presided over his Faculty and his various committees with dignity and grace and with a fair-mindedness that was always conducive to confidence and harmony. His relation to his colleagues was always cordial and understanding, and to the many students who sought advice and guidance he proved a true friend and counsellor.

As Senior Dean, Dr. Kerr was called upon several times to perform the duties of Acting-President and, during a very difficult period when Dr. Tory was overseas in charge of the organization and direction of the Khaki University, he assumed full charge of the administration of the University. In 1933, on the occasion of the celebration of its twenty-fifth Anniversary, the University conferred upon him the degree of LL.D. honoris causa. On May 15th., 1936, when Dr. Wallace resigned to go to Queen's University as Principal, Dr. Kerr was appointed President. In the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. The appointment to the Presidency was not of his seeking. The then Prime Minister sought the advice of the senior men of the University and acted upon it. The position was not an easy one. The University budget and salaries of the staff had grown very rapidly, and space and equipment were very inadequate. A new government had come into power and, though favourably disposed to the University, it had not had time to gain a perspective of the educational needs of the Province. Dr. Kerr faced his difficulties with patience and met the criticisms, to which University Presidents are usually subjected, with understanding and conciliation. One of his first acts was to create a "Faculty Relations Committee" which mediated between the Faculty and the Board of Governors — an organization which has subsequently more than justified its creation. During the years of his Presidency his health, never too robust, caused him considerable concern, and in the summer of 1941, feeling unequal to the demands which the growing needs of the University made upon his strength, he resigned. He lived to enjoy a few years of well-earned rest, but his health steadily declined. The end came suddenly and painlessly. His wife, who had devoted her married life to his welfare and with him to the welfare of the University, was by his side. Many graduates and friends in and outside the University will recognize with grateful satisfaction the valuable services rendered by Dr. and Mrs. Kerr to the University. Many also will cherish affectionate regard for them as friends, and delightful memories of the gracious and generous hospitality of their charming home on the Campus.

Published April 1945.

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