Utah's commissioner of higher education, Wm. Rolfe Kerr, is fate's golden boy. He has lived the kind of life wistful parents like to plan for their children.
Since the time he was chosen student body president of his elementary school, Kerr has been both popular and successful. Kerr would be embarrassed by the description. A modest man, with a quiet, kindly air, he would likely say that life has been good to him. Then, in customary fashion, he would hand credit out to his parents, his wife, influential teachers and colleagues."My mother was uncommonly selfless," he said. "I never remember her making a disparaging comment about another person or allowing us to do so."
It's that eagerness to give credit to others that endears Kerr to people. His life is marked with proof of popularity. He was the student body secretary at his junior high school. He was the star quarterback and student body president of Box Elder High School. When he got to Utah State University, he again eased into the dual role of quarterback and student body president.
The rest of Kerr's life has the same storybook aura. He married the only woman who has captured his heart and imagination.
He and the former Janiel Raybould have spent 27 happy years together, raising six children who are building happily-ever-after lives of their own.
He never sought the substantive positions he has held. Kerr has been a vice president at USU and Brigham Young University. He also served as president of Dixie College. Those jobs were either offered to him or he was asked to apply.
His life is unblemished by personal regret. Asked to identify past griefs, he is disconcerted. After pondering, he mentions poor choices two friends made. Those choices marred their lives, he said, and he grieved over their disappointment.
It is typical of Kerr's concern for others that his friends' greatest disappointments became his own.
Kerr's gentle touch has been a boon for higher education during his three-year tenure as commissioner. As higher education's point man with the Legislature, governor and regents, his personal skills influence fiscal appropriations, laws and policies.
He has deftly negotiated the often treacherous political terrain that has crippled lesser statesmen. University of Utah President Chase N. Peterson believes Kerr's accommodating style is one of his greatest gifts to higher education. "Some people naturally look for differences. Rolfe intuitively looks to see where there is agreement," he said.
Kerr's roots are in a Tremonton beef ranch. He is the son of a woman who loved people and a father who valued work.
The Kerr boys learned both the weight and the thrill of business management early. If the boys raised a steer, they were allowed to keep the profits when it was sold. Kerr began hiring himself out to harvest other farmers' fields with his dad's combine when he was 13. The profits from the steers and the harvesting paid for his mission and college.
"The farm gave us a feeling for hard work and taught us that work has its reward," Kerr said. "A lot of the lessons on the farm from a wise father have had an impact on how I pursue my career and how I treat other people."
Kerr regrets that he couldn't raise his own children on the farm. Delegated house and yard tasks don't teach the same hardy lessons farm work does, he said.
Kerr's passion for hard work is another attribute that Peterson praised. But Kerr works equally hard to make sure his demanding career doesn't rob his family or stand in the way of personal growth.
He sets goals to spend time with his wife and children, exercise, ride horses, carve wood, pursue his own business, and get to know his area's young people.
His sense of balance is reflected in his education. He received his bachelor's degree from USU in agriculture, always planning to go back to the family farm.
When he was offered a job working with students at USU, he decided to get a master's degree while he was there. But he wasn't sure what area he wanted the degree in. He concluded that he most wanted to be a successful husband and father, so he got his master's degree in marriage and family life. He later got a doctorate in educational administration.
The choice of his master's degree was a tough one. He watched several boyhood friends get post-graduate degrees in law and business. But Kerr believed families are the greatest source of joy and sorrow. He finally decided on the degree in marriage and family life because he wanted to prepare himself for a joyous family, he said.
To the skeptical, the words sound schlocky, a pie-in-the-sky fantasy someone created for the benefit of an inquisitive journalist. But Kerr means it. A surreptitious glance at his daily planner shows that the first goal listed is, "express daily affection and appreciation to wife and children."
Besides, Kerr is too guileless to plot an image. He doesn't even believe in plotting a career. During the Depression, Kerr's father got a job loading boxcars at a railroad. He figured out a way to load the cars with less wasted motion than the other men. Hence, he loaded his cars much quicker.
The manager noticed this and, at the end of his first day, Kerr's father was promoted.
Kerr's dad told his boys that story repeatedly, using it to teach them that if they did the best they could with the job at hand, opportunities would come unsought.
"That's why I have never initiated an application for any job I've held. I felt if I did the best I could with the job I had, the future would take care of itself."
That conviction keeps Kerr's eyes on the present. He said he hasn't thought about the next job. Friends believe there will be one. Kerr is only 53 and, historically, he has remained in each job for only five or six years before a new position was offered.
But Kerr takes his father's advice seriously. He works on living a balanced life, meeting his page-long list of goals and being the best commissioner he can be. The future will unfold as it should.