Obituary: Kerr, 97, Made Kits for Young Einsteins

James S. Kerr, whose American Basic Science Club kits fired up kids' interest in chemistry, physics and even nuclear physics and steered them toward careers in science and engineering, has died at 97. He died Tuesday after a stroke a few days earlier. Through his kits, advertised in comic books and other magazines, students could learn about electronics, optics, photography, computers, light and weather. Each kit, touted in ads as a "low-cost introduction to the wonderful world of science," cost $3.45. The atomic energy lab, which came out in 1960, featured three experimental setups and two radioactive sources. Youngsters who bought the weather station kit found a cloud chart and forecasting manual, a remote reading wind vane and anemometer, a rain gauge and barometer. Sold separately were manuals that taught how to earn a ham license or learn about radio-TV servicing. "It was an apprenticeship by mail," said Dr. Barry Ungerleider, a clinical researcher working on pain relieving laser therapy in Austin. "Jimmy put science in my hands when I was just a kid, and from there I became a scientist," said Ungerleider, a member of the club from 1957 to 1959. "And I wasn't the only one; I'm sure thousands of others became scientists because of him." The amazing thing is that Kerr was not a scientist. He left college after two years, built levees on the Mississippi River and sold appliances before World War II. After serving in North Africa and Italy, he opened the James Kerr Co., an appliance store, in the 1800 block of Broadway. In 1956, the year he closed the store, Kerr founded the American Basic Science Club. "I had been taking electronics study courses and reading, and I got to thinking about teaching kids to build simple things," Kerr told San Antonio Express-News Metro columnist Carlos Guerra last year in the only interview he ever gave. "The idea was to do experiments with each part as they went along. It wasn't to hook A to B and B to C and it works," Kerr added. "You got a capacitor and did experiments with it so you knew what it did; same with resistors and everything else. It was eight kits, and the first four were electronics." Niece Genevieve Kerr said Kerr's wife, Rosemary, helped him put the kits together. "Together, they wrote and edited the instruction booklets until they were exactly right," Genevieve Kerr said. Test ads produced less than 60 replies. But a 1957 ad in Boys' Life magazine produced spectacular results, with students and teachers signing up for the kits. Kerr operated the company for nearly 30 years. Later, he built a large optical illusion chamber he retooled and installed for display in Dallas' "The Science Place" museum. The museum is now called the Museum of Nature & Science. Genevieve Kerr said that after her uncle's retirement, he published "Cosmic Doodles." "It illustrated and described a unique, easy method of drawing intricate, beautiful, fascinating and mathematically precise geometric patterns," she said.

James Storm Kerr Born: July 28, 1909, in Brookhaven, Miss. Died: Sept. 19, 2006, in San Antonio Survived by: His wife of 58 years, Rosemary Luckett Kerr; a daughter, Katharine Luckett Kerr of San Antonio; a son, James Daugherty Kerr III of Austin; and two granddaughters, Dylan Kerr Davies of Santa Fe, N.M., and Christina Evelyn Kerr of Austin. Service: Memorial service Friday at 3 p.m. at the Alamo Heights Presbyterian Church at 6201 Broadway.
Web Posted: 09/24/2006 09:24 PM CDT Carmina Danini Express-News Staff

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