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 unquenched. 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 kit." 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 on me?" 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. R.I.P., Jimmy. ------------------------------------------------------------------

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail His column appears on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Portions 2006 KENS 5 and the San Antonio Express-News. All rights reserved.

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