March marks National Women’s History Month and we celebrate the life of Westmont’s founder, Ruth Kerr. Kerr conceived the vision for the college, and served as a trustee and the college’s chief benefactor for 30 years.
This remarkable woman graduated from business school and worked as a secretary-bookkeeper for Alexander H. Kerr, who owned Kerr Glass Manufacturing Company. After acquiring a patent, he had perfected the canning jar that bears his name. The two married in 1913 and had six children.
Mr. Kerr embraced Christianity at a D. L. Moody crusade and believed fervently in tithing, a practice he promoted in two tracts. He enclosed these pamphlets in every case of canning jars and distributed them widely to ministers and Sunday school superintendents.
While collecting money for Community Chest in 1925, he contracted pneumonia and died.
Left with six young children, Mrs. Kerr continued both her husband’s business and charitable work. She assumed the presidency of the company in 1930 and became well-known for her philanthropy.
“She built the business and modeled what it means to live a life with mission impact,” says Irene Neller, Westmont vice president of enrollment, marketing and communications. “This focus continues at Westmont as we aspire to teach students how to lead a life of significance in recognition of Mrs. Kerr’s legacy in founding the college.”
Interested in preparing young men and women for full-time Christian service, she wanted to start an affordable Bible institute that didn’t charge the usual $150 deposit. The Bible Missionary Institute opened in Los Angeles in 1937.
The vision for Westmont continued to grow, and in 1939, the board added a junior college curriculum and changed the name to Western Bible College. According to Mrs. Kerr, they then decided to found a “four-year liberal arts college built on a sound Christian basis, God having given us a vision for this larger work.”
“Ruth Kerr gave us a deep love for God,” says President Gayle D. Beebe. “Part of her greatness was the way she built bridges and inspired others to join her in the ministry.”
In 1939, she purchased the Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles and donated it as a memorial to her late husband, naming the main building Kerrwood Hall in his honor.
Her vision for the college expanded with the addition of Wallace Emerson, who embraced a liberal arts curriculum. Westmont College began offering a liberal arts curriculum in the fall of 1940.
Despite the war, enrollment grew, and five years later, the college sought larger facilities. Once again, Mrs. Kerr helped Westmont acquire a campus. After driving onto the grounds of the former Dwight Murphy estate in Santa Barbara, she was convinced God had chosen it as a site for the college.
She supported the college until her death in 1967 and was particularly interested in providing scholarships to students with need.
“During Women’s History Month and on the 80th anniversary of Westmont’s founding with nearly 1,300 students enrolled today, we celebrate her life and the impact she has gifted to us,” Neller says.