“I am a married Catholic priest,” noted Miami-Dade demographer and county planner Oliver Kerr wrote in a story for the Miami Herald in 2009.
Naturally, Kerr was no longer an active priest. But he had great empathy for those who struggled as he did when he was a young priest at an Overtown parish. Kerr left the priesthood, married twice and, with his first wife Karen Kerr, raised a family of five children — two of whom they adopted.
Kerr, who lived in Palmetto Bay, died Saturday at 77 of Alzheimer’s. He was in Karen’s care at her South Miami home. His second wife, Mary Ann, died in 2015.
Kerr exchanged his clerical collar for a computer at the Miami-Dade County Planning and Zoning Department where he worked for 32 years as section supervisor in charge of demographics and housing. He was renowned as a demographer who tracked the county’s population trends.
“He was dedicated to his family, chosen profession, and committed to those ideals he held dear,” said Manuel Armada, his colleague of 30 years. “His ability to write and produce thorough, concise, clear, and easily understood reports was without equal. His extraordinary oratorical skills were legendary. Oliver could deliver a speech, on the spot, about almost any subject and mesmerize the audience. He attributed this skill to having kissed the Blarney Stone.”
At his retirement party in 2006, Kerr explained, “I went to work every morning happy.”
Former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez named a day in honor of Kerr in 2006. The Miami New Times named Kerr as “Best Public Servant” in 2003. He was awarded the distinction of Fellow, American Institute of Certified Planners in part for his volunteer work in conducting prep courses for AICP candidates.
In 2002, Kerr joined the South Florida Emerald Society, which sponsors the St. Patrick’s Day festival in Coral Gables, and served as a two-term president.
Kerr was also the go-to person dozens of times over the years for Herald reporters who covered the county and the Census. His research skills were so fine-tuned that Miami reporters frequently called on him to predict the county’s future growth. He was remarkably accurate.
In 1987, for instance, Kerr predicted that the population of Miami-Dade on Christmas 2000 would be 2.1 million. He was close — it was 2.2 million.
In 1994, the Herald asked him to predict the population a quarter century out for 2020. He told the paper, “Change is so pervasive that it’s impossible to tell the future.” But he ventured a figure, anyway: 3.2 million people.
“If the past is any indication, this is what Miami might look like,” he said.
Let’s see: according to 2014 Census figures, Miami-Dade grew to 2.6 million. Two years later, in 2016, it rose to 2.7 million. If the math continues this trajectory, Kerr’s likely to come close again.
After retiring from the county in 2006, he taught at Florida International University as a senior research associate.
Planners have lost their most eloquent advocate, and the citizens of Miami-Dade an adopted son who dedicated his life to the betterment of our community.
Manuel Armada, Chief, Planning Research and Economic Analysis Section, Miami-Dade Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources.
“He had such an interesting story of coming over as a priest, a predestined future, almost,” his son Daniel Kerr said. “His love for having a family and my mother is what pulled him away from his initial love to go to the clergy. His whole life as a priest was entirely different from his life as a bureaucrat working for the county — and he was beloved there. In his retired life, he was for the Emerald Society and a huge UM fan. He loved life. Storytelling. Laughing. And singing. He loved it.”
Kerr, with his love for storytelling, told his story well:
“I was born and raised in Armagh City, Ireland's ecclesiastical capital, within sight of two magnificent hilltop cathedrals, both dedicated to St. Patrick,” he wrote in a 2005 Herald article for St. Patrick’s Day.
Kerr came to Miami in 1964 as a Catholic priest at the Archdiocese of Miami. He worked at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables for two years before attending Catholic University of America in Washington, where he studied education and administration. In 1967, he started a four-year post at St. Francis Xavier in Overtown. This was a formative period, personally and professionally, he wrote in a 2009 Herald column in which he urged the church to modify its position on celibacy.
“The Overtown neighborhood was broken in those years with a great loss of housing from the construction of the I-95/I-395 interchange and the urban renewal/land clearing activities of the government. At that time, I lived above the St. Vincent de Paul salvage store on Miami Avenue and Eighth Street and attempted with some success to get new housing built in and around the church.”
With Kerr’s leadership, 47 new town houses were built on Northeast 20th Street and Fifth Avenue in cooperation with three other churches in the area. Apartments followed. Along with other seminarians, Kerr helped run a summer arts and recreation program for Overtown children. “This was a part of the community-building work that I loved,” he wrote.
It was there, too, that he met Karen, the woman who would become his first wife and mother of his children.
“When I found myself becoming attracted to her, I realized that I had a big decision to make,” he wrote. In 1971, he left the priesthood and returned to Catholic University to study urban planning and returned to Miami in 1973.
“It was an agonizing decision. On the one hand, I wanted to continue to serve as a priest doing the parish work that I loved. On the other, I felt that I wanted to be a man fully alive and to create a family just like the one I grew up in. It was a decision that I have not regretted,” he wrote in 2009.
Kerr, an Orange Bowl ambassador who volunteered with the Human Services Coalition, was married to Karen for more than 20 years. He met his second wife, Mary Ann, at an Emerald Society meeting when they were practicing for a dramatic reading of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” They were avid Joyce fans.
“Now, in my retirement years,” he wrote, “I can look back and see God’s love for me reflected in my life experiences.”
Kerr’s survivors include his children Michael, Daniel, Lea and Brian Kerr; grandchildren Madison, Ava and Erin; and five siblings. He was predeceased by his son Joseph and brother James.
A wake will be held at 6 p.m. Friday at John Martin’s Irish Pub & Restaurant, 253 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables. Funeral at 1 p.m. Saturday at Saint Louis Catholic Church, 7270 SW 120th St., Pinecrest.