John P. Kerr, Jr. wanted to ‘‘save the world’’ after earning his degree in Sociology from Northeastern State University, Tahlequah, during the 1960s.
But that didn’t happen until he after he earned his juris doctorate from the University of Tulsa College of Law in 1970 and after 11 years in a lucrative private law practice.
‘‘I just wasn’t satisfied,’’ he said. ‘‘I knew there had to be something else.’’
He understood the business world because he had worked at Unit Rig Co., taking advantage of a program that allowed him to go to law school.
Kerr had a private practice in Tulsa, but took on some contract work for what was then known as Legal Aid of Eastern Oklahoma, now Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma.
‘‘I worked in Adair and Sequoyah Counties,’’ he said, coming in contact with clients needing a variety of legal services.
One group was a band of Cherokee Indians living in the Bell community. That group had not assimilated into the white community and did not speak English. They made national news when their village got electricity during the 1960s.
These people would not speak English outside their community and it was necessary to get a translator when they came to court, he said. These people fought for their basic rights as individuals, the rights that so many take for granted. Everything that happened was so alien to their culture.
It was this work that stirred Kerr’s spirit and helped him realize the start of a new direction in his law career.
Life in the courtroom in Sequoyah County was exciting because people from both sides would attend the hearings, he said. Often, it was necessary to have the sheriff present.
When Kerr took a legal aid position in Okmulgee he found he would be representing clients in Okmulgee and McIntosh Counties.
Cases varied from domestic disputes to child custody problems and issues that covered the spectrum of legal issues.
The work was exciting and he loved the practice, but the office closed when federal funds were cut.
It was back to private practice for Kerr who then understood more fully why he wanted out of that part of legal work.
Yet, he hesitated when offered a position with Legal Services in Tulsa because he wasn’t certain how a country lawyer would function in the city. That was nine years ago.
The additional staff in Tulsa made it possible to specialize and he focused on helping people with housing issues.
But the recent changes in bankruptcy laws have drawn him into that field.
The new laws made it too expensive for private attorneys to volunteer to assist with bankruptcy cases, he said. Some in the legal profession say these laws are the worst ever drafted.
Community involvement is a vital part of legal services work, Kerr continued. ‘‘When I came to the Tulsa office, a lawyer was needed to work in the rural areas.
‘‘I volunteered to work in Mayes County, especially in Pryor.’’
Kerr got on a Resource Council because he felt that with his social service background, he would be ready to help people in that county.
Getting involved meant helping find a way to provide medical care to needy people.
This proved to be exciting for Kerr who, along with many others, worked hard to find a solution to easing the strain on the area hospital.
People without insurance or financial resources needing medical help had no choice but to go to the hospital emergency room, he said. This was taxing the facility to a breaking point.
Doctors and other medical personnel were enlisted to help, but the project stalled because no facility was available.
The hunt ended when a board member agreed to lease a building to the group for an annual fee of $1.
But that building also needed to be bulldozed down, Kerr said.
Instead of taking a defeatist attitude, the committee — and community —turned to renovating the structure, getting building materials donated from the local lumber yard, heating and air conditioning units, everything to bring the building to life.
Today it is a beautiful facility, Kerr said proudly. Every Tuesday people go there for medical assistance.
While Kerr has stepped back from that project, he still is involved on the council, giving legal advice and providing other assistance as needed.