We're sad to share that Donald M. Kerr, founder of the High Desert Museum, the only institution in the nation dedicated to inspiring stewardship of the natural and cultural resources of this region, died on February 4th. He was 69 years old.
Kerr, whose passion for the High Desert and raptors began as a child, opened the Museum in 1982 against great odds, realizing his vision of inspiring millions to “experience the wild nature of nature, and to realize its value.” Undaunted in his quest to create an innovative museum at a time when the timber industry and Bend were in deep economic trouble, Kerr attracted some of the area’s most powerful people as dedicated supporters. He saw the Museum grow to become a major attraction in Central Oregon, with nearly 160,000 annual visitors.
The man who described himself as a “desert rat” was a third-generation Oregonian who grew up in Portland, the son of a banker. He distinctly remembered the moment that his lifelong fascination with raptors began: at about age 12, a teacher brought a falcon into his classroom.
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology at Oregon State University. During those years, he and a group of other like-minded students would seize every opportunity to head east to explore the state’s High Desert. He pursued an interdisciplinary graduate degree in biology, anthropology and journalism, with the goal of becoming an educator, though not in the traditional sense.
Kerr became an instructor at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, where he formed his idea for a place where people would be touched by the wonder of the nature and wildlife of the High Desert. A place that he said would “wildly excite, responsibly teach.” He dreamed of creating a new kind of museum that extended to the outdoors and encouraged active discovery.
In the mid 1970s, he was approaching potential donors with his idea. At that time, Bend was not a tourist town and many people couldn’t imagine how it could be built or succeed. Many told him it could never be done.
A major breakthrough for Kerr came when Bend’s Brooks-Scanlon Corp., one of the world's biggest pine sawmills, donated 135 acres to be the Museum’s home. Mike Hollern, then-president of Brooks-Scanlon Corp., has said Kerr’s passion, sound mission and persistence convinced them to become committed, longtime supporters.
They recalled his fast talking and enthusiasm as he traveled throughout the Northwest, pitching the plan that he had honed and clarified. A core principle included having the Museum serve as a place where groups that conflict over issues around the region’s resources – from ranchers and loggers to conservationists – could find win-win solutions by taking the time to understand all sides of an issue.
In 1982, Kerr opened the doors to the High Desert Museum, one of the first of America’s museums incorporating indoor and outdoor interactive cultural and natural history exhibits, including live animals and “living history,” live portrayals of historic characters. By 1989, Kerr had expanded the Museum by adding Native American and Western history exhibit wings. The Museum was welcoming about 100,000 annual visitors.
In 1995, Kerr was working with a wild great horned owl and the bird’s talon pierced his skin. Kerr contracted viral encephalitis, which left him unable to continue to lead the Museum.
Today the Museum is more than 100,000 square feet with a quarter-mile trail leading to outdoor exhibits including the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center, where visitors can see rescued wildlife such as eagles, owls, porcupines and other animals close up.
Kerr remained proud of the Museum, particularly when he would hear visitors tell how it had inspired them and what they learned there.
High Desert Museum Executive Director Dana Whitelaw said, “Don’s enduring vision will continue to guide this Museum every day. Every aspect of it lives up to Don’s assertion that education and experience are the basis for thoughtful decisions throughout life. Because of his progressive thinking nearly three decades ago, the Museum is a vital part of this community and as relevant as ever, inspiring visitors from our region, the nation and around the world. It thrives in a continual tribute to him.”
Kerr is survived by his wife, Cameron; his sister, Eleana Kerr; 4 children, Jocelyn, Hodge, Tenney and Jessie; 6 grandchildren; and dear family companion, Norbu Sherpa. A celebration of Don’s life will be held at the Museum the evening of Saturday, March 7. In lieu of flowers, the Kerr family suggests a donation to the High Desert Museum.