Stories From 20 Years; Mary Kerr

For many years, one of the hotspots of environmental activism and heritage protection in London was not in an elaborate board room but a modest home on Elworthy Avenue in the city’s Old South community.

A force of nature and a force for nature, Mary Elizabeth Kerr’s advocacy work began in the 1980s when she felt she needed to move from simply enjoying nature to actively working to protect it.  Once Mary set her mind to something, there was no stopping her.

A comprehensive listing of her contributions would fill an article in itself but suffice it to say that Mary – feisty and forthright – was a mover and shaker in the protection of natural and built heritage and a fixture at London’s City Hall.  In her day, every politician and senior manager knew who Mary Kerr was.  The following are among her many contributions:

  • Serving as president and in other positions on the board of the McIlwraith Field Naturalists of London Ontario Inc. (MFN, now publicly known as Nature London) for over 20 years;
  • Serving on London’s Environmental and Ecological Planning Advisory Committee (EEPAC);
  • Becoming, in 1990, the first female president of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (now known as Ontario Nature);
  • Serving on, and chairing, London’s Local Advisory Committee on Heritage (LACH);
  • Serving as president of the Old South Community Organization (OSCO) and volunteering at functions such as the Gathering on the Green; and
  • Studying, as an adult student at Beal Secondary School, nature photography, and producing pictures still adorning the walls of her daughter’s home today.

Mary was a “no nonsense”, action-oriented person who got results.  Anita Caveney, a former MFN president, said of Mary, “She had a way of getting other people to do things that she felt she wasn’t qualified to do herself” but was passionate about.  For example, Mary convinced Anita to act as editor of the proceedings of the Focus on the Thames conference that Mary had helped organize.  It was hard to say “no” to Mary.

Mary also mentored many others including former TTLT President Jim Rule and his wife, Marg.  “Several times,” explained Jim, “she would host us at her home in south London and, over homemade cookies and herbal tea, would explain in her convincing way why non-involvement in environmental causes was not an option.”  Jim went on to lead efforts to protect the Mill Pond in Dorchester, work for which Mary later nominated him for an award.  Marg recalls her saying – with characteristic forcefulness – that, if you wanted to preserve property, you needed to “own the damned land.”

So it was no surprise that, in 1998, when I approached Don Gordon about the possibility of creating a regional land trust, that he immediately knew who to call next – Mary Kerr, naturally.  From that first meeting in her living room on October 2, 1998, Mary was tireless in her efforts to organize and promote TTLT.  Aside from serving on the Organizing Committee, she was the Trust’s founding vice-president and also active at the committee level.

Among her greatest contributions to TTLT was the close connection she fostered between the Trust and the Iveys.  Her personal friendship with Richard and Beryl served as the foundation for a relationship that continued for two decades until their passing.  Because they knew and respected her, the Trust had a measure of “built in” credibility with them, and their support has helped TTLT immeasurably.

Although she did not have the opportunity to pursue post-secondary education, Mary is a testament to what can be accomplished with passion and persistence.  Said her daughter, Cheryl, of her mother, “She is the strongest woman I know.  At a point in many people’s lives where they were retiring and starting to ‘slow down’, my mother helped raise my son by becoming his full-time caregiver while I worked, and spent almost every evening and afternoon nap time at meetings and on the phone, advocating on behalf of the Forest City.”

She continued, “My mom saw the future through her love of her children, and her grandchildren.  She wanted their future and their London to be a beautiful city to grow up in, and she dedicated herself to this – endless hours of Council meetings, committee meetings, public meetings, hours of frustrations, hours of celebration and – in the end – she never gave up.”

Said Mary once, when reflecting on her life’s work, “My purpose for working as diligently as I have has always been to speak out, make recommendations, [and] lobby [for] . . . the protection of natural areas for public use and their preservation for future generations.”

Today, Mary’s health no longer permits her to participate actively in the work of TTLT, but the Trust remains a testament to what passion and persistence can accomplish.


Written by: Bernie VanDenBelt with contributions from Anita Caveney, Jim Rule and Cheryl Smith