MySA.com: Carlos Guerra
Web Posted: 09/30/2006 10:32 PM CDT
San Antonio Express-News
Requiem for a Science Mentor Who Ignited a Flame of Curiosity
Four years ago, when I learned that I would meet Jimmy — as the
Kerrs called James S. Kerr, their unassuming patriarch — the
historian in me looked forward to talking to the 90-plus-year-old.
But this particular nonagenarian was an extra-special treat.
He had touched my life a half century ago, helping ignite a
curiosity and love of discovery within me that is still deliciously
As a pre-teen, I sent Jimmy $2, hard-earned by a little tyke who got
no allowance but earned 25 cents an hour working at his mama's
little cafe. Good Boy Scout that I was, I recall leafing through my
Boy's Life magazine and being drawn by the ad for the American Basic
Sciences Club that Kerr had put together.
If I sent $2, I would become an ABSC member, and every month I would
receive a kit that would walk me through magnetism, electronics,
light theory, optics, weather and even nuclear physics, each for
only $3.40, C.O.D.
Even I could afford that.
As I looked forward to meeting Jimmy, memories freshened of my
scissor cutting the coupon out of the magazine page; carefully
writing my name and address on it; and asking my mother for a stamp
and envelope. I stuffed the coupon and my two bucks in before
walking six blocks to the post office to send it off.
Jimmy took his time responding.
I know that because I checked our post office box daily for weeks in
restless anticipation as thousands of other boys must have done.
Those were more patient times.
Later, when he finally consented to an interview, Jimmy acknowledged
that he and his wife, Rosemary, were overwhelmed with the response
for the kits after America was shocked by the Soviets beating us
into space by launching Sputnik 1.
Shortly before Kerr's passing two weeks ago, Dr. Barry Ungerleider
called me. He's a clinical researcher working on pain-relieving
laser therapy in Austin.
Another of the thousands of Jimmy's ABSC kids steered into the hard
sciences by science kits, Ungerleider was looking for Kerr to
explore the possibility of reviving the club. He wanted to reawaken
American kids' interest in the hard sciences.
"As I speak to you," Ungerleider chuckled, "I am five feet away from
a soldering iron. The first soldering iron I ever got was in an ABSC
Last year, before I could ask Jimmy for an interview, he asked me
several very incisive questions about a column I wrote two weeks
before. Each question led to a lively 20-minute discussion. He
followed with other questions about earlier columns that he seemed
to remember in greater detail than I did.
Jimmy was an avid newspaper reader, always up on current events, and
he knew I wanted an interview.
When I finally cornered him, he said, "You have so many more
important things to write about; why do you want to waste your time
But after 45 minutes, he relented.
And two weeks ago, when Jimmy died, Texas — and America — lost one
of its most effective proselytizers of the basic sciences. We are
all indebted, because were it not for Jimmy and his ABSC kits, we
would not have regained our competitive edge in technology that we
lost in the 1950s.
To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail
email@example.com. His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays
Portions © 2006 KENS 5 and the San Antonio Express-News.
All rights reserved.