Bob Kerr, We'll Miss You

Sep 2, 2014

Bob Kerr, the Providence Journal’s eloquent everyman and the newspaper’s marquee columnist for more than two decades, has been laid off by the ProJo’s new owners, the New Media Investment Group.

Instead of letting him retire gracefully, the new owners fired the newspaper’s heart and soul  in a particularly callous manner  - in a personnel meeting that Kerr described as ``pretty cold and abrupt.’’

Tributes, some limned with anger over the way he was treated, rolled in this afternoon from former colleagues and readers. Some readers took to Facebook to threaten to cancel subscriptions to Rhode Island’s largest newspaper.

Kerr, 69, was known as a witty and wise writer, a well-read journalist who was entirely without sanctimony or the inflated self-regard that too often infects media stars.

``Bob Kerr was an institution,’’  said M., Charles Bakst, the ProJo’s longtime political columnist who retired in 2008. ``He has a gift for writing and a gift for caring about people, especially veterans, but mostly for people who did not have a voice.’’

A Michigan native who was raised in a leafy Detroit suburb, he was a graduate of Hamilton College and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in the Vietnam War. He had what separates the truly great journalists from the journeymen – an unshakable intellectual curiosity blended with empathy and even compassion for his subjects.  And the skill to convey what he discovered in a writing style that was alternately funny, serious and scolding. Beneath his florid, sometimes rambling drolleries, a reader found grand nuggets of wisdom.

``He was interested in just about everything,’’ said Jean Plunkett, one of his former editors at the ProJo.  ``He treated the janitor the same way he treated the executive editor…he was evenhanded and sensitive.’’

Kerr could write about anything, from presidential campaigns, to World Series games to a homeless veteran denied medical care. One day he was hanging with Dick Gephardt as the presidential candidate tried unsuccessfully to coax a sled dog from under a car in a snowstorm during the 1988 New Hampshire primary.

The next found Kerr at a homeless shelter with a down-on-his-luck  recovering  alcoholic  veteran who just tested positive for HIV, or with a single mother who just had her electricity shut off during Christmas week.  He was also a devotee of rock and roll who covered music well and was as at ease at Lupo’s  as he was anywhere.

Kerr, has lived forever in Fall River with his wife, Paula Kerr, who is retired from the newspaper racket. A journal reporter in the long-closed Fall River bureau before he became a columnist, Kerr was at the ProJo for 43 years.

At 69, Kerr still had his fastball and his endless curiosity. While other columnists younger than he was mailed it in or got too many columns by looking, solipsistic-style , in their sock drawers, Kerr pounded the pavement.

Kerr was a man who enjoyed the newspaper business in all of its raffish glory, a sort of modern times Damon Runyan. One of the founders of the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies, Kerr entertained the audience for many years as `Lonnie Love’ a fictional lounge-lizard in a polyester Tux who came onstage at the Venus de Milo in Swansea to the schlock song ``Feelings.’’

In  later years, he retired to the backstage, where he was Follies director and a behind-the-scenes presence. He  had a golden Rolodex and a web of relationships with the meek and mighty that lured such mystery guests as Barney Frank and John Kerry to the event.

Kerr was a patient and  generous  mentor to generations of young reporters who sought his sage advice. One of the most celebrated of all of them, Dan Barry of the New York Times, said it today in an interview with R.I. Public Radio. Writing a column three times week, as Kerr did, is ``a hard assignment, and it’s hard to pull off for a very long time. But I think Kerr has always pushed himself to go out on the street and talk to average citizens. He just didn’t want to sit in his office and and talk to some official at City Hall and then spin out a cheap 600-word column from that. He was often out on the street, talking to people who normally hadn’t spoken to any reporter in their lifetimes, and he would tell their stories. He did it with compassion and heart and never tripped into sentimentality.’’

As is the case with the best reporters, Kerr had a way of blending in with the meek and the mighty, said Brian Jones, a longtime colleague and friend. Jones, another former ProJo scribe, said that while Kerr was a gifted writer, he treated everyone with respect and empathy.

``He had a judicious humor, in the best sense….he could be very dry, but very funny and cutting and that’s a very hard thing to do,’’ said Jones.

That he was a Vietnam veteran, Jones said, made him an especially insightful voice during times of jingoism or misplaced patriotism. Kerr knew personally  the horror of war in terms of blood and treasure and ranted against political leaders who were eager to shed the blood of American soiiders in foreign missions of dubious design.

Kerr was a decent and principled man with an easy humor. One Follies eve, he was informed that one of the jokes at his expense would be that his table would be ``filled with homeless, gay, drug-addicted, veterans with PTSD in know Bob all your readers.’’

``Yeah, that’s about right,’’ he deadpanned.

Sheryl Stolberg, a New York Times Washington Bureau reporter, once Kerr's colleague at the ProJo, wrote today, ``As the great man himself might say – I looked in the ProJo newsroom and there was a great reporter, gone.’’ And Washingtgon Post columnist E.J. Dionne, said, ``He's such a good man..I'm very upset on his behalf.''

``Cutting Bob Kerr is unthinkable,’’ said Mark Arsenault, a former ProJo reporter now with the Boston Globe. ``He was the conscience of the newspaper, and one of the few columnists who can make you think and make you laugh at the same time. Cutting Bob is a rotten thing to do to readers.’’

Kerr himself, of course, stayed classy, telling R.I. Public Radio that,  ``I've been very lucky. I knew it when it was a great paper, I knew it when it was a good paper. I was sad to see what happened to it but it's always been great to write the I don't have any regrets.''

That may not be a sentiment ProJo readers share right about now.