Gift of the past creates future opportunities

Kay's story was featured on Global News. View the video on the Global Lethbridge website.

When you sit in the presence of Dr. Kathleen Kerr (LLD ’04), better known as Kay, you have the keen sense that she’s the type of person you could shoot the breeze with for hours on end. Often recognized by the hats she frequently wears, she has a twinkle in her eye and carries a certain spunk not typically associated with a 94-year-old. It takes only minutes of conversation to confirm this suspicion as her story begins to take shape.

Kay Kerr and her late husband Jack owned four Kentucky Fried Chicken locations, and she personally developed the gravy recipe still used by KFC, while staying in the home of Colonel Sanders himself.

As Kay will tell you, her first job out of business college was in John Diefenbaker’s law office in Prince Albert, Sask. She was married in 1939, just a few days before Canada joined the Second World War, and she lost a brother (LAC George Hanson) in a flying accident in 1941. Kay and her late husband John (Jack) owned four Kentucky Fried Chicken locations, and she personally developed the gravy recipe still used by KFC, while staying in the home of Colonel Sanders himself.

Although Kay and Jack travelled the world, they made their home amidst the mountains in the Crowsnest Pass where they ran the legendary Turtle Mountain Hotel in Frank, Alta. Kay has received numerous accolades, including the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal and an honorary degree from the University of Lethbridge. Her life history is rich.

It follows then that her former three-story home was filled to the brim with nearly a century's worth of collectables, each with its own memory: German-crafted wardrobes, a long cigarette holder kept in a roll top desk, an intricate Arctic oosik (made from the bone of a walrus penis), a cup and saucer received as a wedding gift, boxes of KFC memorabilia, a K-Tell plug-in coffee maker for your car (still pristine in its box), a red velvet couch and a vintage camera – just to name a few.

However, when Kay made the move to a lodge in Blairmore, Alta., she knew she had to downsize and was faced with finding someone who would love her collection as much as she had.

A former member of the U of L Senate and Board of Governors, and long-time U of L supporter, Kay believed the University might be just the place. Following a phone call and a visit, Kay made a plan to give the entire contents of her house to the U of L theatre department.

“After packing everything up in boxes, my two-car garage was absolutely loaded. I’ve seen pictures of houses where someone was a recluse and they’d saved everything, and corridors are piled high on both sides, well, that was my garage, right up to the rafters,” Kay recounts with a smile.

What followed was an epic move headed by James McDowell, the technical director for the U of L theatre. A 26-foot U-Haul trailer made the trip twice, three loads were carted in a pick-up and one more in a van – finally Kay’s garage was cleaned out.

The timing was serendipitous. Just weeks later, a set designer came into James’s office, explaining that he was looking for a large collection of antique furniture for his upcoming production, Courting Johanna.

“The opening line in the show was to be: “I have some furniture to ship…”

So I said, ‘come with me,’” James recalls. “We walked into the theatre where we had it stored, and he was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there it is.’”

And so it was, that many of Kay’s items already made their debut on stage earlier this year. As James explains, the newly acquired props can be hard to find and will help expand the drama department and benefit students.

“I’m grateful to Kay for offering this to us. She could have easily put it all up for auction and given the profit to her children. But she wanted to see it used. And she knows we’ll give it a good home. She recognized the value of what we do here, and we’re thankful,” says James.

As for Kay, she carries with her these words on stationery: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”

“People ask me if I was sad to see everything go, but as far as the stuff is concerned, I really don’t miss it,” she says. “I think it’s just wonderful that my things will be used in a new way. It will just keep on giving, and that’s the best.”