Thomas Kerr, Class of H'71

Posted Oct 05, 2021

Kerrr Thomas Obit Pic

Emeritus President Thomas Kerr H’71 died Aug. 6, 2021. Kerr was born Oct. 8, 1933, in Columbus, Ohio. He received a bachelor’s degree in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University in 1956, a master’s degree in history from the University of Buffalo in 1959, and a doctorate degree in social science from Syracuse University in 1965. He came to Otterbein as an assistant professor of history in 1963. As a faculty member, he was active on campus committees and served as acting academic dean for seven months from 1969 to 1970. Kerr was selected from a pool of 117 candidates to become the 18th president of Otterbein in 1971, when he was only 37 years old.
When he accepted the position in 1971, Kerr laid out his plans for his future presidency in a statement, which partially reads: “Private colleges face financial problems stemming from rising costs and increased competition for students. Progress cannot come primarily through growth but must come through reassessment of our present programs. We must also conceive imaginative new programs responsive to the needs of both our rapidly changing society and our
students who become its future leaders. We must develop a flexible curriculum combining study and action.”

In response to his insights about the future of higher education, Kerr launched the University’s nationally acclaimed Integrative Studies curriculum, which remains a model curriculum in higher education today, as well as the continuing education program for adult learners. He also launched Otterbein’s signature programs in nursing and equine science. He created new partnerships for Otterbein, many of which remain strong today. During his presidency, Otterbein became the first university in the nation to have students and faculty seated as permanent, voting members of its board of trustees. Kerr also led changes to facilities, often with a focus on strengthening the arts at Otterbein.
In 1972, he dedicated the new library, which was named the Courtright Memorial Library seven years later and houses the Becker Gallery for art on the lower level. When the Rike Center was built in 1975 to address changing needs for Otterbein’s athletics program, the shift allowed the Alumni Gymnasium to be renovated into a hub for arts on campus.
The gymnasium was reborn as the Battelle Fine Arts Center in 1979. Another advancement in the arts was the addition of the scene shop to Cowan Hall in 1982, which provided space to build more elaborate sets for Otterbein’s theatre productions. During Kerr’s presidency, the endowment rose from $2.9 to $6.9 million.

After his retirement from higher education at the age of 50, he continued to raise money to fund higher education initiatives. He later served as president of the Grant Medical Center Development Foundation in Columbus, Ohio.
Kerr remained involved with Otterbein after his retirement, attending events and even researching and speaking about Otterbein’s history to alumni audiences and the Westerville Historical Society. The Presidents Gallery exhibit on the second floor of Towers Hall displays his research on the other presidents, as well as Kerr’s own achievements as the
18th president.

Survived by his wife Donna Kerr; son Thomas (Cynthia) Kerr, V; daughters Cheryl (Gerard) Coleman and Kathleen (William) Hansen; grandchildren Wyatt, Saje and Spencer Kerr, Ryan (fiancee Kristen) and Rose Coleman, William, Nicholas and Michael Hansen; sisters- in-law Merrilee Warner and Shirley Lawton; brother-in-law Philip Bridgham; nieces, nephews and cousins. Preceded in death by parents Thomas J. and Ruth Kerr, sister Jean Bridgham, parents-in-law Merrill and Hazel Lawton, brothers-in-law Fred Warner and Raymond Lawton.