John Kerr, a longtime attorney for The Post and Courier and a champion of freedom of the press, died Wednesday after a long illness. He was 66.
“Citizens across South Carolina will benefit for years to come from John’s legacy as a defender of the public’s right to know,” said William E.N. Hawkins, editor and publisher of The Post and Courier.
“He championed First Amendment causes in courtrooms across the state, including the Supreme Court, winning major cases that opened up public meetings and public records. South Carolinians today have the right to see evaluations of public school superintendents thanks to John’s skills as a media lawyer,” Hawkins said.
Kerr, a native of Dillon who had recently moved to Flat Rock, N.C., died at his home on the Isle of Palms surrounded by family, said close friend Lon Shull.
A lawyer with Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, Kerr was a 1968 graduate of The Citadel. He received his law degree from the University of South Carolina in 1973.
“I benefited mightily from his sage counsel,” Hawkins said. “When he walked into our newsroom to take control of a subpoena or wrestle with a legal issue, I knew we were in great hands. All of us at Evening Post Publishing will miss him dearly as both our lawyer and our friend.”
For more than 20 years, Kerr’s work centered on defense of libel and slander actions against broadcast and print media, the Freedom of Information Act, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, copyright, media-related contracts and Internet law issues.
Kerr was included in “The Best Lawyers in America” for his work in First Amendment law.
“His passing is a great loss for a free press and open government in South Carolina,” said S.C. Press Association attorney Jay Bender. “His representation of newspapers resulted in several significant court decisions to keep government open for the public. On top of that, he was a good guy.”
Kerr was also the “self-proclaimed greatest president in the history of the Charleston Men’s Chorus,” where he was also on the board of directors, said Shull, a former conductor.
The master of ceremonies for concerts for more than a decade, Kerr was a leader in the establishment of the chorus’ scholarship fund and its annual Memorial Day concert.
“His homespun Dillon humor really just transfixed everybody,” Shull said. “For the most part, John’s humor was self-effacing for the group and for himself. Everybody liked his easy manner. The key phrase that he always said at the concerts was, ‘Well, that wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.’?”
Shull said Kerr commissioned a piece from Earl Mays, the late director of The Citadel’s music programs, that was a medley of service anthems. Kerr served in the Army in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970, receiving a Bronze Star, an Air Medal and a Purple Heart.
“It was important to John that when we got to each service anthem, that he asked the veterans from each of those branches of the service to stand up,” Shull said. “That kind of became a Men’s Chorus tradition.”
Kerr’s last concert was in May, when he was recognized for his service to the chorus and as a veteran.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was there.
“I will never forget the most affectionate, long, standing ovation for John,” Riley said. “The Charleston Men’s Chorus was one part of his life, but there were many parts of his life that were all so rich. He was a gifted lawyer, a patriotic citizen ... and a wonderful, joyful friend and colleague. His gifts to the community were diverse and of great quality. He was just a fine man.”
Kerr was also former president of the Charleston Lawyers Club and the Young Lawyers Division of the South Carolina Bar; a member of the Board of Governors of the South Carolina Bar; a former vestry member at St. Philip’s Church; and former president of the John Ancrum Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
He is survived by his wife, Rebecca H. Kerr, and five children.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in St. Philip’s Church, 142 Church St. Funeral arrangements are being handled by J. Henry Stuhr’s Mount Pleasant Chapel.