Tom & Donna Kerr: Selfless Service

Donna and Tom Kerr

A life of service is a way of being. The more one serves, the more one’s life is enriched. It is a choice to serve, not a requirement or a duty. A life of service is a choice to share for the benefit of others, to give without any expectation of receiving anything in return. It’s a decision that invariably builds relationships, creating opportunities to learn and to grow.

Tom and Donna Kerr, residents of Friendship Village of Columbus, a senior living community managed by United Church Homes, have been dedicated to serving others in one form or another for nearly six decades.

Donna’s career as a teacher spanned many changes over 30 years. She was always most excited when her students experienced a breakthrough moment — when an idea or concept suddenly became clear and crystalized. As someone whose mother and sister were also teachers, Donna aspired to encourage each student to reach his or her potential. The bigger the challenge, the more she loved it.

Donna served on numerous boards once she and Tom settled in the Columbus area, including the Women’s Service Board of Grant Medical Center, focusing on volunteering and fund-raising. She has served the American Association of University Women at the state level, working to empower women as individuals and as a community. Donna also served on the board of the Center of Science and Industry (COSI), as president of the Women’s Auxiliary, and was active in organizations like the Girl Scouts and her church.

If she was involved, she was all-in, engaged, serving others with heart, ideas, integrity and enthusiasm. It no doubt meant a hectic, taxing schedule for a mother of three and the wife of the president of Otterbein University.

Kerr Early 70sDr. Tom Kerr began his Otterbein career in 1963 as an assistant history professor. He was active on faculty committees and served as academic dean for a few months. In 1971, Tom became one of the youngest college presidents in the nation, after being selected from among 117 other candidates. At the time, Westerville was a small town of 12,000 people located outside the Interstate 270 outerbelt, separated from the urban center by miles of farm fields sprouting with corn. He hoped to help Otterbein become more engaged in the fast-growing, emerging Columbus community.

Tom was known as a “builder of ideas.” He helped Otterbein students become better connected to Grant Medical Center with the nursing program, and Battelle Memorial Institute with the computer science program. Otterbein opened its equine science studies program and became nationally renowned for its theatre arts and musical theatre programs. Adult learners were also included, beneficiaries of an integrative studies curriculum.“ I tried to make ideas shape opportunities,” he said. “I felt it was important to lay out long-range goals. I didn’t have great ideas by myself. The ideas were embraced by creative people at Otterbein, who were forward-thinkers and stewards for change.”

He served 13 years as Otterbein’s president, opting for a career change at age 50 and leaving a legacy of having created multiple new opportunities for students. Under his leadership, Otterbein became the first university in the United States to have both students and faculty participate in their own governance as permanent, voting members on its board of trustees.

He left the university with increased enrollment, new buildings, new programs and substantially greater endowment support. Tom claims none of these accomplishments as his own. He gives credit to his predecessors and successors. He simply leveraged his position to make positive changes for the institution.

Tom says none of these achievements would have been possible without Donna. She was always his inspiration, his sounding board, his partner. Donna says that being married to Tom made her life richer in so many respects, connecting her to the community to serve in ways she could never imagine. Their lives were rewarding because they were so supportive of one another, and faithfully gave their time and talents where and when it was needed.

“We wanted our children to learn how to have respect for themselves and give to others,” said Donna. The legacy to their family was to serve God and the community. Their children are a direct reflection of their servant leadership, as two served our country in the Navy.

Tom and Donna are in good company at Friendship Village. The spirit of community, friendliness, the abiding sense of service, and a host of other Otterbein alumni, faculty and friends make it an attractive place to stay connected and keep serving the university. They live with integrity and compassion, always serving and expecting nothing in return. They’re enjoying their retirement living, and doing so with purpose.