Anyone interested in knowing more about the earlier years in Brookings-Harbor will not want to miss the opportunity to meet Bob and Phyllis Kerr, the 2010 Azalea Festival pioneer citizens at the Pioneer Citizen Reception, 4 p.m. Saturday, May 29 at the Chetco Valley Historical Society Museum.
Phyllis and Bob Kerr will serve as the 2010 Azalea Festival pioneer citizens. The Pilot/Marjorie Woodfin
The Pioneer Citizen Reception is always a high point in the Azalea Festival weekend, an event that draws many of the earliest residents who come to share their stories and to view the old photos and mementos that reflect some of the “good old days” or “bad old days,” depending on the particular era and conditions of the times.
Although neither Bob nor Phyllis was born in Brookings, both are Brookings Harbor High School graduates and have lived all of their 58 years of married life in this community.They both came early to Brookings-Harbor, Bob in 1945, as a 14-year-old, whose father, Henry Kerr, moved his sawmill from Packwood, Wash., and Phyllis as a 5-year-old in 1939, when her parents, John and Agnes Darger, moved the family to Brookings. Both Bob and Phyllis have been involved in community service for most of their lives.
The only time Bob spent away from Brookings was in the years between 1949 and 1952 while serving in the U.S. Army 7th Infantry. He said, “I joined the Army to go to school and it worked out very well until Korea. “
Over the years Phyllis has participated in many Azalea Festivals, including the 1950 Azalea Festival when, as a Brookings Harbor High School junior, she was a member of the Azalea Festival Court.
As far as Bob’s interest in Phyllis prior to leaving town to join the Army, there was none. She was just his little sister’s friend.
However, when he returned to Brookings in 1952, things were a little different, and within six months the two were married in a wedding at the former Community Church, the only Protestant church in town, which is now the First Baptist Community Church. Bob said, “Well, it was leap year and she trapped me.”
Bob’s service to the community has included serving 28 years as a fireman, 17 of those years as fire chief, as mayor 1975 through 1978 and 1981 through 1988.
During his time as fire chief Bob obtained the first fire department pumper, a 500-gallon per minute Howard Cooper. “Later my dad got involved in several bonds and bought a 1,500-gallon-per-minute pumper, a Rooney,” Bob said.
“We kept working and everything kept moving up,” he noted about the improvements in firefighting equipment and capabilities.
Perhaps the most intrusive part of being fire chief was the alarm system. Phyllis explained, “The fire station’s telephone was in the Shell station that stood where Beckley Real Estate is today and the station owner answered it and set off the alarm. However, at night the phone line was transferred to our home.”
Bob explained that, when calls came in the middle of the night, he answered the fire phone while Phyllis got up to grab their phone and start making calls to firemen who then relayed the call to others.
Bob, who kept his boots and turnout pants in a corner of the living room, explained that he would quickly pull on pants and boots as he hurried out, ready to fight fire as soon as he reached his destination. However, he said he had to insist that the children never play with his boots again after stomping into a boot with jacks in the bottom.
Firefighting seems to run in the family. Phyllis’ father was involved with the fire department for many years, and the Kerrs’ second son Tom, who is currently assistant fire chief, went to his first fire when he was only nine months old. Bob explained that he was babysitting when an alarm sounded and he took the baby with him and turned him over to the woman in the house next door to the fire.
Bob said that taking excellent care of the equipment, considered a good thing, has made it difficult for fire department personnel to convince the community of the department’s need for money. “The fire department has a hard time getting money because we keep the equipment in such good condition. Take the case of the pumper we just retired. It still looked sharp, but it’s obsolete and you can’t get parts for it.”
As mayor, Bob was also deeply involved in improving the city water supply. He explained that the city purchased the water system from Elmer Bankus, who had sunk a railroad tanker car upended in the Chetco River just past Morris Flats, from which the city water was pumped through a pipe submerged in the middle of the river. He said that they needed to change the intake because during high tide the water was OK, but not as good as desired.
At that point Bob’s training as a private pilot turned out to be an important asset for the city. He explained, “I got a call from Coos Bay about an available grant that someone had reneged on and was unable to accept. I was told we could have the grant money if there was any way I could get there to sign it immediately and I said, ‘There sure is, I’ve got an airplane.’”
Bob said he hopped into his little Mooney aircraft and took off to sign for the grant. Fortunately the city already had plans for the waterline down the Chetco River that qualified for use of the grant funds.
During those early years, while Bob was fighting fires, politicking, and helping run the family business, Phyllis, a stay at home mom for their four children, was putting in her community service with the 4H Club, Scouting, PTA, church, and many youth and other non-profit community-support activities. She continues to be active in many of those programs today and, in addition, currently participates in the SMART (Start Making a Reader Today) program, reading with children at Kalmiopsis School
On his return from his military service, Bob had immediately rejoined the family business, Kerr Hardware and Electric, that had been moved by brother-in-law Bob Rettke, from the garage into a building on the lot currently serving as parking lot for Kerr Ace Hardware Building Center. About 10 years ago the business was moved into a portion of its current site on Chetco Avenue.
The business just kept growing, and they kept knocking out partitions and taking over additional areas of their current building as other small businesses moved out. “When we joined Ace Hardware, it really grew,” Bob said.
This pioneer couple raised their four children, Tom Linda, Gary and Steve, in Brookings, as native Oregonians, but all were actually born in California, at Seaside Hospital just across the border,
All three sons raised their families in Brookings, with Tom and Steve joining Bob in Kerr Hardware, and Gary running his bowling alley, Azalea Lanes.
All appeared to be following in the footsteps of Bob’s father and mother, Henry and Adelaide, who were known, according to many longtime residents throughout Brookings-Harbor, as hardworking, community minded, and philanthropic.
Daughter Linda Kerr Kehr, who lives with her husband, Rich, in Klamath Falls, is a nationally recognized, award-winning science teacher.
Bob and Phyllis, who look forward to sharing reception honors with family including their children and grandchildren Amy Maynes; Christine, Kimberly, Ashley, Kristin, and Stephanie Kerr; and Chris, Brad, and Alissa Kehr; also step-grandchildren Christel and Jill Morell, plus great-grandchildren Rex, Kasilyn and Brody.
It is sure to be a joyful time filled with love, laughter, and learning about Brookings-Harbor as the Pioneer Citizens are joined by Grand Marshal Peggy Goergen and the five Azalea Princesses
Refreshments will be served and there will be time for questions and tours of the museum, located at 15461 Museum Road, in Harbor.