When Westmont opened in 1937 as the Bible Missionary Institute, William “Bill” Kerr became its first bookkeeper, beginning a 73-year connection with the college that culminated in 37 years as a trustee. The son of Ruth K. Kerr, Westmont’s principal founder, he died Nov. 5, 2010, at the age of 95.
“Bill was an important and valued member of the board of trustees,” says President Gayle D. Beebe. “He shared his mother’s interest in providing financial aid to worthy students while stepping in at crucial times to meet other special financial needs. It has meant so much to the college that a member of the family has carried on Ruth Kerr’s commitment to Westmont all these years.”
One of six children of Alexander H. and Ruth K. Kerr, Bill saw his legacy at Westmont as continuing “the presence of a Kerr” on the board. He embraced his parents’ tradition of service and giving. “We’ve always been tithers,” he said in a 2008 interview. “My mother encouraged us to give, and she gave. In fact, she didn’t go in for a lot of fancy clothes or fancy cars or fancy food or anything else.” He recalled that Westmont “was almost totally a Kerr-funded organization for many years. My greatest joy was in seeing it succeed and grow.” Bill joined the board in 1973 and served until his death. Through the Alexander H. Kerr Benevolent Association (later known as the A. H. Kerr Foundation), he gave $1 million gifts to the Ruth Kerr Memorial Student Center in 1982 and to the Whittier Science Building in 1985, and he contributed to the construction of Emerson Hall.
In the summer of 1996, Bill helped initiate the Trustee Scholarship Fund, and he purchased a much-needed academic computer for the college in the late 1980s. He chaired the Westmont Foundation in the 1980s and served on capital campaign steering committees in 1979 and 1989. When David Winter became president in 1976, Bill gave him valuable advice about the college’s finances, making weekly trips to Santa Barbara.
Bill graduated from USC in 1936 and pursued graduate work in chemistry. His mother had taken over Kerr Glass Manufacturing Company when his father died in 1925, and Bill helped her in the business until World War II. He described her as an “exceptionally good businesswoman” and felt confident leaving the company in her capable hands in 1942.
He had learned to fly in 1934 and later said, “I got that flying bug so bad.” As a flight instructor for Fleet Flying Service in Van Nuys, Calif., he taught the late American actor Jimmy Stewart to fly as well as British pilots anxious to join the RAF. Just before Pearl Harbor, Bill became a pilot for TWA and flew for the airline for 10 years. He returned to the family business as executive vice president in 1957 when his mother’s health started failing and she asked him to take a leadership role in company.
“I said, well I don’t want to give up flying, but I’ll come back out there and move to L.A.,” he recalled. “So I took a job with Northrop Aircraft as assistant director of their flight school.”
Thanks to Bill’s astute management, leadership and innovations, Kerr Glass Manufacturing Company became one of the largest glass operations in the United States. In 1982 he received the glass industry’s highest honor, the prestigious Phoenix Award. He retired in 1984 as president and CEO. He then consulted for several firms and was director of S.G.I. International, a coal and crude-oil-residual processing company. He also served as director of Lau Capital Funding and general manager of Original Ideas Inc., an invention company that he helped to start. He chaired Bainbridge Technology Group, a management consulting firm. In addition to being involved at Westmont, he served as an elder at Bel Air Presbyterian Church and was active with the Forest Home Auxiliary.
Bill is survived by his children, Conni Cox and Bill Kerr, and five grandchildren, including Alexis Kerr ’05. His wife, Beverly, and son, David, preceded him in death.