Norwin superintendent strove to follow Kennedy's example
William Kerr was bedridden with the mumps on Nov. 22, 1963, when his parents burst through the front door of their Apollo home after grocery shopping.
The 11-year-old Kerr ordinarily would have been in school that Friday afternoon, but there was nothing ordinary about the day — his mother was crying as his father rushed over to turn on the television.
“I just saw policemen with rifles on the black-and-white TV,” he said. “My dad told me that President Kennedy had been shot, and then (CBS News anchorman) Walter Cronkite came on with his report.”
President John F. Kennedy was dead.
Fifty years later, Kerr can still remember his feeling of disbelief.
“It was so surreal,” he said. “I couldn't wrap my mind around the fact that the guy I read about every day and saw deliver all those speeches was dead. I couldn't understand why anybody would want to kill him.”
Even at such a young age, Kerr had respect and admiration for Kennedy's leadership skills and commitment to public service.
He remembered how his father had praised the way the 35th president handled the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the precipice of nuclear war. He was inspired by Kennedy's confidence in his presidential debates with Richard Nixon.
And he was most impressed by how Kennedy galvanized young people during a tumultuous and increasingly divisive era.
“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country,” Kennedy said in his inaugural address.
Kerr, now superintendent of the Norwin School District with four decades of education and public service on his resume, may be considered among the most galvanized of his generation.
“I've always had such an appreciation for public service as a way of strengthening community and improving the quality of life for everyone,” he said. “President Kennedy was a shining example of what that is all about. He enlightened not only our country, but the world, as well.”
After graduating in 1973 from Slippery Rock University, Kerr at 21 was elected to Apollo Council. His four-year term there was followed by a brief stint as mayor before he was elected in 1979 to serve as an Armstrong County commissioner.
The inspiration that Kerr derived through Kennedy's leadership skills, he said, was the impetus of his spirited career as a public servant.
“(Kennedy) once said that politics is the art of compromise,” Kerr said. “He knew how to compromise on issues, but he never compromised his integrity or principles.
“That's real leadership. That's what's so intriguing about him, and that's what's missing in the realm of modern politics.”
During and after his time in elected office, Kerr worked as an emergency communications coordinator in Vandergrift and held several educational leadership jobs in the Alle-Kiski Valley. He eventually earned a doctorate in education from the University of Pittsburgh in 1994.
He served as Armstrong School District superintendent for many years before taking the Norwin job in 2009.
Kerr's career in education has enabled him to pass on Kennedy's legacy to younger generations.
As a social studies teacher in the Kiski Area School District, Kerr created a slide program highlighting the life and death of the charismatic president. He showed it every November around the time of his assassination.
“I saw it as an opportunity to teach my kids about ethical leadership and effective communication,” he said. “Kennedy was so eloquent and articulate ... he spoke in poetic sentences to convey an important message, rather than the sound bites that many politicians do today.”
Much of the media for the program came from Kerr's extensive Kennedy memorabilia collection.
He began shortly after the assassination, collecting clips from the old Valley Daily News and the Leader Times of Kittanning. One featured a photo of Kennedy campaigning in Kittanning.
He even acquired a copy of the Warren Commission Report on the assassination.
Today, the collection consists of about 2,500 items.
Kerr's favorite two are a pair of 1961 inaugural ceremony invitations, gifts from Harry Fox, a fellow Armstrong County commissioner. Fox received them when he was chief of staff for then-Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. John Saylor. The other is the original Congressional Record of Jan. 9, 1964, which details Kennedy's assassination.
Kerr can't estimate the collection's worth, adding it's un-likely he'd sell any of it soon.
With the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination on Friday, Kerr reflects on how much a bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald took away from the country that afternoon in Dallas.
“The effect of his loss was pretty immediate,” he said. “When you look at Vietnam and the racial tensions at the home front, it was a really tough time for America.
“You have to wonder how Kennedy would have pulled us together.”
For Kerr, at 61, the mysticism of Kennedy's presidency is just as potent as it was in the seventh grade.
“He will be forever young,” he said. “And even though he died too young, his memory lives on in the hearts of many Americans.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
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