Kerr, William L. (1902-83)

William Les Kerr received many awards celebrating his achievements as a plant breeder, ecologist, naturalist, and sportsman, as well as his contribution to prairie horticulture. Born in Renfrew, Ontario in 1902, he graduated in 1926 from the Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph with a BSc in Agriculture and later earned an MSc from the University of Maryland. After spending one year at the Rosthern Experimental Farm involved with apple breeding, Kerr transferred to the Morden Research Station in Manitoba to assist with the fruit breeding program; there the “Kerr” apple-crab was named in his honour and has since been widely propagated and planted. He also was responsible for the development of the “Almey” ornamental crab and the “Toba” hawthorn, the only pink-flowering hawthorn hardy enough for the southern prairies. In 1942, after spending ten years at Morden, Kerr became superintendent of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) Forest Nursery Station at Sutherland, which was responsible for the propagation and distribution of millions of tree seedlings to farmers for shelterbelt plantings. There he was involved in the breeding and selection of a large number of ornamental and fruit plants, a work that he continued well after retirement. The “Royalty” ornamental crabapple has been one of his most prominent introductions, being widely planted across North America and selected as one of Canada's Centennial trees in 1967.

In 1945 Kerr selected and introduced the Sutherland caragana, a very upright-growing form; the Sutherland larch; Fangstadt, Polar Bear, and Blue Fox willows; and the Wheeler poplar. Another outstanding success was the introduction of the “Sutherland Gold” golden elder in 1964, for which he received an Award of Merit in the Netherlands; this elder is still widely propagated. He later introduced a dwarf elder called Goldenlocks. Kerr also worked on flowering almonds, hazelnuts and cherries, and introduced several hardy chrysanthemums such as Sutherland Pink, Cree, Early Autumn, and Popeye. Kerr received honorary life memberships in the Saskatchewan Horticultural Association, the Western Canadian Society of Horticulture (of which he was a founding member), the Canadian Society for Horticulture, and the Saskatchewan Fish and Game League. He encouraged nurserymen in Saskatchewan to form an association, which became known as the Saskatchewan Nursery Trade Association, and in 1977 he received an honorary life membership from that organization. He received the Kiwanis International Distinguished Service Award for contributions to the city of Saskatoon, the Stevenson Gold Medal from the Manitoba Horticultural Association, and several Awards of Merit from the Western Canadian Society for Horticulture for individual plant introductions. In 1978 he received the D.R. Robinson Award from the Saskatchewan Horticultural Association in recognition of his plant breeding work. He was also involved with the Saskatoon Fair Board and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.

Kerr was instrumental in the landscaping at the Forest Nursery Station in Saskatoon, which became the Saskatoon Forestry Farm Park and Zoo after its closure; he was equally responsible for the development of the Zoo. His love of wildlife inspired the formation of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation. Kerr was particularly interested in pheasants and was a technical advisor for a pheasant breeding, raising, and releasing program for twenty years. As a final tribute, the Les Kerr Foundation was established to provide funding for researchers and individuals with projects specializing in the breeding and development of new plants suited to prairie growing conditions. In 1982 the University of Saskatchewan granted him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Brian J. Porter