Pittsburgh native devoted his life to honor flag
William T. Kerr’s love of the flag grew from stories of the Civil War told by his father, Jackson Kerr, who fought with a Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment.
“So many men gave their lives for their country,” said William Kerr’s grandson, Thomas Kerr, 67, of Yarmouthport, Mass. “That’s where it came from … it came out of those stories.”
So began a quest to have this day designated in honor of the Stars and Stripes. The drive to make today Flag Day started in earnest when William Kerr, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1868, was picked at age 14 to make a patriotic speech at a convention in Chicago.
His address about the flag began a 67-year campaign in which he met with nine presidents and wrote countless letters to senators, congressmen, governors and local officials in hopes of advancing his plan to designate June 14 as Flag Day. The date is significant — on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress adopted a flag of 13 red and white stripes and 13 stars in a field of blue as the nation’s first flag.
“He was a strong personality, a force of will,” his grandson said. “He had no secretary. He did it all himself.”
William Kerr established the American Flag Day Association of Western Pennsylvania in 1888 and helped create the National American Flag Day Association a year later. He served as its president for more than 50 years.
His passion for the flag was a uniquely American thing, said Andy Masich, chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and CEO of Heinz History Center in the Strip District.
“Other countries don’t have this kind of love affair with their flags,” he said.
In 1927, William Kerr persuaded more than 188,000 kids to kick in a penny each to build a monument to Old Glory in Schenley Park for the 150th anniversary of the flag’s creation. It was dedicated June 14 of that year.
Inspired by a talk with Kerr, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation on May 30, 1916, that suggested June 14 be observed as Flag Day.
But the “official” designation that William Kerr sought for decades continued to elude him. Flag Day bills that were introduced in Congress died in committees.
“To see those bills come up and then not go anywhere had to be disappointing,” said Thomas Kerr, who grew up in Delaware County.
In 1949, Congress passed a Flag Day bill and sent it to President Harry S. Truman, who signed it into law on Aug. 3.
Kerr, in his 80’s, and in failing health, was delighted. He died four years later in Yeadon, Delaware County.
Much of William Kerr’s memorabilia has been passed to Thomas Kerr and his wife, Gayle, who have letters in support of Flag Day hanging on a wall in their home. Among them is one from Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
In 1947, William Kerr asked MacArthur to be the honorary president of the National American Flag Day Association.
“I know of no greater nobility of purpose than that which seeks higher honor and deeper reverence for our country’s flag, for in that honor and reverence is rooted the spiritual strength which has brought our people safely through the successive crises of war and peace since the birth of the Republic, ” MacArthur wrote in a letter to Kerr dated April 14, 1947.
If you go
“Stars & Stripes: An American Story,” concludes its nine-month run at the Senator John Heinz History Center this week.
The 7,000-square-foot exhibit, sponsored by Bank of New York Mellon, tells the stories of the people behind the more than 200-year history of the flag.
Developed by history center staff in conjunction with flag collector Dr. Peter Keim of Texas and historians, including Marc Leepson, the exhibit includes objects, images, and archival materials from the history center’s collections, and items on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, The Warhol Museum, The National Gallery of Art, and private collectors.
In addition to William T. Kerr, a number of Western Pennsylvanians played a part in flag history, including:
• Michael Strank of Franklin, one of the soldiers who hoisted the flag in the iconic image from the Battle of Iwo Jima.
• John MacFarland, a Pittsburgh native who took down the Confederate Stars and Bars flag from the New Orleans Customs House in 1862 as part of the Union occupation during the Civil War.
• John Michael O’Cilka, an artist from Cambria County whose painting, “Miners with Coal Police,” portrays a group of striking coal miners holding an American flag, demonstrating the workers’ appreciation of freedoms granted in the United States.
• Jay Apt of Squirrel Hill, a NASA astronaut who displayed the American flag on his helmet during more than 35 days in space.
Hours for the exhibit are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The folding of a 20-foot-by-36-foot flag to close the exhibit has been scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
For more information, contact the history center at 412-454-6000, or visit its website at www.heinzhistorycenter.org .