High Desert Museum founder dies
Donald Kerr leaves legacy in Bend and beyond
The man whose passion for the history and landscapes of the arid American West spurred the creation of the High Desert Museum more than 30 years ago has died.

Donald M. Kerr, the museum’s founder and leader for its first 16 years, died Wednesday in Bend. He was 69.

“He had this incredible need and desire to share his love of the out-of-doors, his love of the desert,” Cameron Kerr, his wife, said Friday.

Donald M. Kerr fit his VW van with a structure for his great horned owls to hold onto while he drove. Submitted photo

While museums Kerr visited in his youth featured taxidermied animals displayed behind glass or velvet ropes, he envisioned and built a different kind of museum. Since it opened 33 years ago, the High Desert Museum has been defined by live animals, living in something closely resembling their natural habitat, and interactive exhibits.

“He wanted people to be excited,” she said.

He leaves his name on the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center at the museum.

Kerr’s death comes nearly 20 years after an incident that dramatically changed his life. In May 1995, he fell ill with viral encephalitis, an infection of the brain that eventually robbed him of his ability to communicate and care for himself.

The virus may have come from a scratch by a wild owl — known to Kerr and his family as Thelma — attracted to their home near the museum by his tame owl.

“That’s the only thing we could figure out because we tested for everything else,” Cameron Kerr said. The scratch came from a talon of the wild owl, cutting Kerr’s skin through a tiny hole in his well-worn bird handling gloves. A week later the symptoms of infection started.

Born in Portland, Kerr was introduced to falconry at a young age and raised a wolf cub for a high school biology class, launching a lifelong fascination with the natural world. Kerr earned a degree in biology from Oregon State University with a minor in journalism, and wrote widely about coyote poisoning and other wildlife issues after graduating.

He worked as an instructor at Washington Park Zoo, which is now the Oregon Zoo, in Portland, and as a wildlife biologist for the Nature Conservancy before coming to Central Oregon in the late 1970s. The road toward the creation of the museum began before he moved to the area, and came as a result of camping trips and conversations with friends who shared his idea of a different kind of museum.

Donald Kerr, founder of the High Desert Museum, with a pair of owls. Kerr, also the namesake of the museum's Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center, died Wednesday at 69. Submitted photo

Mike Hollern, president of Brooks Resources in Bend, was president of the Brooks-Scanlon timber company in the late 1970s when Kerr came to him with what Hollern remembers as his “weird dream” about a museum. In his early pitches, Kerr called it the Western Natural History Institute.

Hollern was skeptical. Starting a museum would cost a lot of money, as would keeping it running, he told Kerr. He suggested Kerr develop a business plan and raise some money, and a few months later, Kerr returned to give Hollern an update.

Slightly warmer to the idea than before, Hollern still suspected Kerr didn’t have the money he needed. Twice more, he and other prospective supporters of the museum told Kerr he’d need a couple hundred thousand dollars to get his idea off the ground, and twice, Kerr went out and found the money.

“By that time, I was kind of impressed by the guy’s tenacity,” Hollern said Friday.

Hollern finally bit. In 1979, Brooks-Scanlon offered to lease the museum a patch of timberland south of Bend along U.S. Highway 97. Construction began, and in May 1982, the museum opened its doors to the public.

Among the friends who helped Kerr sculpt his vision for the museum, Caryn Talbot Throop served as the founding curator. She left the museum in 1994 to move to Wyoming and still counts Kerr as one of her closest friends.

Without Kerr’s efforts the museum likely would not have been created.

“Don was the great salesman … through his passion and belief in what he was doing,” she said Friday.

Don Kerr, founder and visionary of the High Desert Museum, stands outside the museum's entrance, shortly after it opened, with a great horned owl. Submitted photo

The early marketing campaign for the museum included a bumper sticker with a picture of a baby turkey vulture and the phrase “Coming,” said Cameron Kerr. She still has one on the cargo box atop her car. He also passed out baby turkey vulture pins to serve as a conversation starters for his idea for the museum.

Kerr shared his love for the outdoor world and animals with his family. He and his wife raised four children, two from her previous marriage.

The museum was part of the kids’ upbringing, said Hodge Kerr, Kerr’s stepson. “We went there all the time as children,” he said. “… part of the family business.”

Vacations included trips out into the desert, said Cameron Kerr, and visits to other institutions similar to the museum.

“(Taking) notes about how we could do something better here at the High Desert Museum,” she said. “He was nonstop … right up until he got sick.”

Kerr leaves a lasting mark on the museum he so dearly wanted and guided into creation, said Dana Whitelaw, president of the High Desert Museum.

“He had this incredible need and desire to share his love of the out of doors, his love of the desert.”
— Cameron Kerr

“His vision is so solid that it will continue to guide the museum every day,” she said.

A public memorial for Kerr is being planned for the High Desert Museum in March, said Cameron Kerr.

Kerr took a “great horned owl approach to life,” said Jay Bowerman, a longtime friend of Kerr’s who worked closely with him during the museum’s early days.

“The thing that makes the great horned owl one of the most successful species on earth is they’re willing to try anything,” Bowerman said. “They’re extremely opportunistic in their approach — they’ll try anything once, if it works, they’ll do it again. I think Don was kind of like the great horned owl, he was willing to do anything and everything to make this institution a success.”

Survivors along with Cameron Kerr and Hodge Kerr, both of Bend, include stepdaughter, Jocelyn Sycip of Portland; daughters, Tenney Meisch of Lynnwood, Washington, and Jessie Kerr of Bellingham, Washington; and caregiver Nurbu Sherpa of Bend. Kerr was preceded in death by his brother Andrew Kerr of Portland, who died at 70 in November.

— Reporters: 541-383-0387, shammers@bendbulletin.com; 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. An earlier version of the story contained misspellings of Dana Whitelaw and Nurbu Sherpa’s names.

The Bulletin regrets the errors.

Donald M. Kerr founded the High Desert Museum in 1982. Submitted photo

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