Chapter 18: OSU's 'Great Builder'...William Jasper Kerr (1907-1932) 

By George Edmonston Jr. and Tom Bennett


Late on a summer afternoon during World War I, a long, black touring car, a 1917 Cole, trailed a cloud of dust over the narrow forest road leading to a Boy Scout camp at Spirit Lake, Washington, the white cone of Mt. St. Helens a spectacular backdrop.

As the car rolled to a stop inside the campgrounds, a tall, dignified man emerged from the rear seat. He was mustached, middle-aged, dressed in a dark cutaway coat and gray trousers, dark derby hat, high collar and cravat, and perfectly shined shoes.

This Kerr, kneeling over his son in a cabin in the woods of southern Washington, this was the Kerr known best by those who surrounded him...always the dignified gentlemen and deeply devoted to his family. A skilled administrator firmly in charge of a growing college...with a full schedule and a host of obstacles to surmount...and yet always alert to the needs of others. His loyalty and generosity were legendary among his supporters and inspired their allegiance throughout his life. He was a natural leader.

He also had the presence of a leader. He dressed and acted the part instinctively, aided by a handsome face and an imposing, large frame. He was not a jovial extrovert. He had a reserved mien...some called it a "natural dignity"...that was instantly communicated to others. "I can't imagine anyone slapping him on the back," said a granddaughter once, who, on the other hand, treasured memories of the genuine warmth behind his public reserve.

He did not drink, did not smoke. He openly scorned obscenity and coarse behavior. A friend once described him as having an "imperial uprightness, a smiling ease, a congenial self-possession that never deserts him." His enemies called him cold, aloof, arrogant and worse. To be sure, Kerr throughout his lifetime inspired deep feelings in others. He was loved for his promotion of "The College," as he liked to call OAC; disliked for being too partisan. Supporters of the University of Oregon especially distrusted him, and to this day his name is anathema to many old-timers in Eugene.

 In 1927, toward the end of his career at OAC, Oregon: The State Magazine, called Kerr the "builder of college halls, curricula, scholarship, policies, ideals, and traditions." Even his detractors agreed: William Jasper Kerr was one of the best things that had ever happened to Oregon State.

When he arrived in the fall of 1907, he was only 43, but had already been the president of two colleges in Utah. His predecessor, the venerable Thomas Gatch, had retired at 73 after serving 10 years. But the scope of Oregon Agricultural College hadn't changed greatly since the post-Civil War days of President Benjamin Lee Arnold, and Gatch himself would often refer to OAC with affection as a "farmer's school."

Kerr was quick to change the college's perception of itself by converting its priority from farming to "professional education." He raised entrance requirements and discontinued the preparatory department that had served as a high school. He worked diligently to get OAC accredited by the nation's professional educational associations. In his first year, he established four major schools, Agriculture, Engineering, Home Economics and Commerce, then placed a dean in charge of each. He soon followed these with Forestry, Mines, Pharmacy, Education, Health, and Physical Education. He initiated summer sessions, founded radio station KOAC, the Horner Museum, graduate study, and the college's Agricultural Extension Service.

During his years as president, 25 in all, he supervised the construction of 23 of the buildings still on campus, almost one a year! None were built without his careful study. According to Edwin T. Reed, his friend and colleague for many years, "he always took time to deliberate, assembling and analyzing all the facts."

Rather than approach campus projects piecemeal, he commissioned a 25-year master plan by a nationally known landscape architect, John C. Olmsted of Boston, then in Seattle planning the Alaska Yukon Exposition. Kerr followed Olmsted's plan diligently until 1926 when he commissioned a second plan to allow for the placement of the Memorial Union in the center of campus.

Kerr had inherited a campus that covered 225 acres and was valued at $229,000. When he left, Oregon State had grown to 555 acres and was worth $7.5 million. His first annual budget was $88,000, his last over $2 million. Enrollment when he arrived was in the hundreds. When he left it was in the thousands.

By the time he retired in 1932 to become chancellor of the new state system of higher education, Oregon State had not only experienced phenomenal growth and development, but had also survived the initial impact of the Great Depression. More importantly, Kerr had given it a new spirit of pride and accomplishment and the sense of becoming a great university.