Before going back to her hometown in Florida as her final resting place, the St. Louis community where Betty Jean Kerr built her life and legacy of serving the health needs of St. Louis families said their goodbyes on Wednesday, September 16. She died Saturday, September 12 in St. Louis. She was 82.
Kerr was a nurse, a health leader and a woman with a vision who turned a St. Louis area storefront free clinic started by community activists and medical students in 1972 into People’s Health Centers.
When Kerr retired in 2007, in her honor the clinics were renamed the Betty Jean Kerr People’s Health Centers. The Board of Directors at People’s selected as her successor to lead the clinic and People’s Family of Corporations Dwayne Butler, her only child.
“My mother was a nurse, with the heart of a nurse in everything she did, and she lived a life of serving,” Butler said. “She spent her life fighting to serve the health needs of the underserved community with the dignity and respect that all lives deserve. She became a CEO and great community activist, but she never described herself as anything other than a nurse. Her commitment and resolve to serve her community were beyond special.”
Betty Jean Kerr was born on April 22, 1938 in Yulee, Florida to Ethel Lee and Alexander Calhoun. She earned an advanced degree from St. Louis University and a degree from the Brewster Duval School of Nursing in Jacksonville, Florida. Kerr helped grow the People’s free clinic into People’s Health Centers, with multiple locations offering comprehensive health services.
U.S. Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay said his friend of more than 40 years was one of the most remarkable women he has ever known, who perfected the delivery of quality healthcare to a community with major healthcare disparities and who taught him a great deal.
“She was a public health pioneer, a visionary community leader, and an endless source of compassion and healing to thousands of St. Louis families, many of whom would have never received medical care without her,” Clay said.
“My father and I were proud to help bring federal resources to Betty that allowed her to expand People’s Health Centers from a storefront clinic to one of our nation’s preeminent and exceptional Federally Qualified Health Centers.”
Dr. Jacqueline Harvey, a pediatrician and chief medical officer at People’s, said she interviewed with Betty Jean Kerr on her living room couch in the spring of 1989. “It didn’t take long to figure out that her passion for the community and my passion for children would be a great fit,” Harvey said. ‘Thirty-one years later, mostly under her mentorship, it’s been an incredible experience. She was an awesome lady.”
“When I think about Ms. Kerr, ‘trailblazer, visionary, smart, compassionate, and mentor’ come to mind,” said Vickie Wade, executive vice president of Clinical Services for Betty Jean Kerr People’s Health Centers. “She pushed me to reach my full potential as a nurse and be a voice for our community. She helped shape my educational path as a nurse leader and a provider. Ms. Kerr shared many memorable moments in my life, providing guidance and support. Thirty-six years later, I’m still doing the community work that was the epitome of her passion.”
People’s Executive Vice President Mark Sanford was with Kerr from the days at the storefront clinic until the day she retired.
“She always believed in putting the patients first,” Sanford told Fox2 News.
He said Kerr worked with Civic Progress to get them to believe in her vision of community health, and she was able to raise $4.6 million to build a new headquarters and facility at 5701 Delmar.
“Betty Jean Kerr would often say the People's Health Centers team must be a catalyst for the community we serve,” said Clara Scott, director of Social Services at PHC. “They need us to be their voice and advocates.”
Kerr was a founding member of the St. Louis Integrated Health Network, Gateway Classic Walk of Fame inductee, and a charter member of the St. Louis Metropolitan Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta.
St. Louis Treasurer Tishaura O. Jones had the opportunity to work with Kerr.
“Soror Kerr was my mentor, both professionally and personally,” Jones said. “I had the honor and privilege of working for her for almost 12 years, starting as an analyst and working my way up to the executive staff. She was an integral part of my growth, as a mother and as a leader.”
Kerr was honored as a Lifetime Achiever for Excellence in Health Care in 2004 by the St. Louis American Foundation.
“Betty Jean Kerr belongs to the pantheon of visionary African-American leaders in St. Louis who have made lasting and significant contributions to a better quality of life for thousands in the Black community,” said Donald M. Suggs, president of the St. Louis American Foundation and publisher and executive editor of The St. Louis American.
“She was responsible for providing greater access to the healthcare needs of generations of underserved Black families. Our community owes a huge debt of gratitude for her dedicated, steadfast service. A beloved leader, she was able to exceed expectations of a modest free clinic and foster the huge, successful healthcare complex that serves as a fitting legacy for her productive, extraordinary life.”
Kerr is survived by her son, Dwayne; stepchildren, Henry and Glenn; several cousins; nieces and nephews.
In accordance with her wishes, a private burial will take place for Ms. Kerr at her birthplace of Yulee, Florida.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Betty Jean Kerr Scholarship Foundation, 5701 Delmar Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63112, or click the link at the top of phcenters.org.