Bob Kerr on his abrupt exit and his future

FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — If one of your neighbors saw their four-decade-long career end in a matter of minutes without an explanation, they might give Bob Kerr a call, hoping an edgy column could provoke a change.

Kerr’s no longer available to be that voice, since it was his career that came to a sudden end. He admits being angry about never hearing a reason why he was let go from what he calls “the best job” at the Providence Journal.

“It was over in 10 minutes,” Kerr tells us, referring to the termination process.

But it also sounds as though he’s not done telling other peoples’ stories, hoping to enlighten. One sign of that sits down in his basement, next to the closest thing Kerr has to a computer.

“There it is, my Olivetti electric,” Kerr says after pulling back the dusty cover of his typewriter. “When we were snowed in, I might’ve written a few columns on that and called them in.”

Next to his Olivetti and below several black and white pictures from his colorful life, there’s a handwritten diary from a prisoner that Kerr says might help complete his next assignment. When you survive Vietnam, as Kerr did as a Marine, fellow veterans like convicted murderer Joe Labriola will open up to you.

“People told me such incredibly personal stuff sometimes,” Kerr says. “Joe is this amazing man with this spirit that’s just incredible. And he’s done 41 years in prison.”

You might’ve already read about Joe in Kerr’s column. The two have become friends over the years, and a book about him seems to be somewhere in their future.

But in case you missed it, Kerr’s recent past involved aiming sharp but gentle phrases and sometimes humor at some tough subjects for a three-times-a- week column. The homeless, veterans, victims, politicians and many other subjects were all part of that, until last week.

“I think I was numb. It doesn’t register. I mean 43 years and I’m out of here?” he says, referring to his final minutes at the Journal.

His good friend and fellow columnist Bill Reynolds walked Kerr out of 75 Fountain Street for the last time.

“And he and I are in the parking lot, looking back at that building. And I said man, I’m not going back in there again,” Kerr says. “And it was pretty emotional. It’s still going. It’s still getting processed. I loved that job. I truly did. Absolutely loved it. It was wonderful.”

So now he’s spending more time with his wife Paula who worked at the Fall River Herald for 40 years. In fact, they met at a Welfare Board meeting.

“I looked at him and thought he was a hippy,” she tells us. “He looked at me and thought I cared too much about my clothes.”

But a week off the job did not stop Kerr from surveying potential material. Primary night sparked a few ideas, as a certain twice-convicted subject of several Kerr pieces dating back to his first days at the paper was out and about, talking up his chances in November.

“I’m not thinking of whether it’s a good or bad choice for mayor,” Kerr says with a wry grin. “I’m thinking of it in column potential. I don’t write a column anymore and if Buddy Cianci is mayor, that’s guaranteed a column every two weeks. Say what you want about Buddy, but he’s good copy.”

Kerr skewered more than a few politicians without needing or asking for their approval, but he’s still amazed how strangers let him into their lives.

“In being that personal and open, I think they helped other people understand whatever it was they were dealing with. And when you can do that and create some common ground, I think that’s a good thing.”

For 43 years, it was a very good thing. Now Kerr’s fans, including perhaps his friend Joe, are hoping there’s more to read.

Send story ideas to Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow us on Twitter: @StreetStories12 and @wbuteau.

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