October 1, 1999 Volume 7, Number 3


About OCN




the Bowl



Letters to
the Editor


from HRD




Kerr an institution in the city and university

By Sigrid Klaus

English Prof. and prolific author Don Kerr has been witness to decades of changes at the U of S and in Saskatoon.

Photo by Wayne Eyre

For many, Prof. Don Kerr ,of the English Department, is an institution of both Saskatoon and the university.

His four decades at the U of S as student and teacher; his work for local heritage; his co-authorship (with Stan Hanson) of Saskatoon, the First Half Century; and his sizable output of plays, short stories, essays, articles, and poems (with titles like "Farnham Block" and "Capitol Punishment, December 1, 1979") contribute to that reputation.

He first taught an English class at summer school 1960, when he was 24 years old.

"At that time, summer school was largely made up of teachers returning to university to upgrade their credentials. So it turned out that I was the youngest person in the class. I was a bit nervous until I read through the first essays. Then I knew I was needed."

He grew up in Saskatoon, attended Nutana Collegiate, and still lives in his old neighborhood, for which he says he has a deep attachment – even saying in one of his poems "that God grew up there."

That neighborhood included the university campus.

"I remember my father, who graduated from Commerce in the late ‘20s, pointing out to me during Sunday drives that the Murray Memorial Library (now the Murray Building) stood on an old ball diamond. Because building came to a stop in the city and on campus at the start of the Depression, both stood still until after the war. For someone growing up during that time, those static years remain vivid in memory and are an impulse to writing local history. I saw the changes."

But affection for Saskatoon hasn’t precluded Kerr from having a close attachment to two other cities – Vancouver and London, England.

"Since I was five, my family made regular car trips to Vancouver to visit relatives who had moved there to find work at the end of the ’30s."

It’s a custom he’s continued with his own family, and he estimates that he and his wife Mildred now visit Vancouver twice a year.

Since many of these visits are made by car, he says much of his life reads like a road movie and probably explains why so much of his writing relates to going down the road.

"The nice thing is that I don’t drive, so I have plenty of time to observe – even to read and write while we drive." His latest book of poems, Autodidactic, was all written in a car.

The Kerrs came to know London when he was a graduate student studying there between 1962 and 1964. They immediately felt at home and still visit friends they made there, even though he says London has now become very expensive.

"When we lived there in the early ’60s, it was cheaper than Saskatoon except for rent and heat."

It was while he was studying there that he developed a passion for both theatre and film – although theatre love grew out of the experience here of seeing Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle, a play he still cites as his favorite.

"Other than Spring Thaw, we didn’t get much live theatre in Saskatoon during the ’50s, so Chalk Circle was an exception. It was held in the old Gym and performed by The Canadian Players. In seeing it, I realized that through dramatic form you could do anything."

During the two years Kerr was in London, he says he went to at least five films a week.

"A sort of universal film culture existed then, one that I wanted to experience and even then planned one day to teach film."

But many of his most intense experiences have come from writing his own plays, particularly Lanc, premièred by Greystone Theatre, with director Henry Woolf, in February 1996.

Researching the play – about the experiences of men who flew the Lancaster bomber during THE SECOND WORLD WAR – Kerr interviewed more than 60 members of Bomber Command and says the conversations he had with them were one of the "the best experiences" of his life.

"Few of us, I think, get to live as primally as they did. For example, I met a man – a rear gunner – whose aircraft was hit over the North Sea. The hydraulics had been shot out and his rear turret wouldn’t open. He cranked it open and jumped – but it closed and one boot got caught in the door. So there he was going down with the aircraft. He managed to undo the lace and jumped to safety in Denmark, sans boot. Even on the ground his problems weren’t over – although his experience ended with him being shown around by two of the most beautiful women he says he ever saw."

Kerr has had three earlier full-length plays produced by 25th Street Theatre and has another – Andy and Annie – ready to go. He’ll reveal only that it’s a romance for our time between a 16-year-old girl and a 30-year-old drug-dealing motorcyclist.

As well, his first collection of short stories, Love in the Bottle, will be published by Coteau Books next year.

If there’s a secret to his prolificness in a wide range of genres, it’s being able to fit writing in, even during a busy teaching schedule.

"I write best in restaurants and bars and away from my office, where I don’t think I’ve ever written anything."

Kerr says his main interest in politics these days is in cultural politics – in helping to create a regional and Canadian cultural presence with institutions that foster that presence, such as Coteau Books, NeWest Press, and SaskFILM. He’s on the boards of each.

Another abiding interest is the preservation of our city and prairie heritage. He says we’ve come a long way since the demolition of the Capitol Theatre in 1979.

"The city now has a heritage co-ordinator with a budget, and people who own heritage property are given tax incentives for improvements made to them."

He terms the lack of funding for the restoration of the College Building "a provincial disgrace" and cites the Poultry Science Building as another "heritage test case" on campus.

"At least there’s debate regarding its fate. It’s not as it was with the Stock Pavilion, which, without warning, just disappeared."

After a two-year stint as head of Drama, Kerr is back full time in English again teaching modern drama and film. Thirty-four years of teaching haven’t dampened his enthusiasm, but he notices some differences.

"The main one is that more students now skip classes, particularly in upper years. Many work up to 30 hours a week to put themselves through. Still, it’s disconcerting to have people show up to write exams whom you’ve never seen. I’ve known of colleagues who’ve become so frustrated, they’ve taken early retirement. But, in 1964, as now, students are still terrific."

On Campus News is published by the Office of Communications, University of Saskatchewan.
For further information, visit the web site or contact communications@usask.ca

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