'Tennessean' columnist Gail Kerr dies at 52

Veteran staffer had been with daily paper since 1983, its voice since 2000

Longtime Tennessean columnist Gail Kerr passed away on Tuesday. She was 52.

The newspaper reported the cause of death as a blood clot. Kerr had battled cancer for years.

Journalism was the only job Kerr ever had. Growing up in Donelson, she worked as a copy clerk in the newsroom while still in high school. After winning a scholarship from the local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists while at Southwestern College, Kerr interned every summer and vacation period in the newsroom, according to longtime Tennessean Editor John Seigenthaler.

"I think she was an exceptional journalist. Beyond that, I think she succeeded as a columnist because she knew the community and really identified with all segments of the community," Seigenthaler said. "She would write with authority because she knew the subject so well, whether it was a feature about someone who was down on their luck or politics or religion."

After joining The Tennessean staff full time in 1983 as a reporter, she rose to become both a team leader and eventually city editor. She began her three-times-a-week column in 2000.

"As a journalist, she had really gotten a feel for this community," Seigenthaler said. "When she became a columnist, it gave her an opportunity to go where she wanted to go and she had great instincts."

"I have the greatest gig," Kerr wrote on the 10th anniversary of her column. "Three times a week, I get to write commentary on anything and everything that affects my wonderful city of Nashville. I'm captain of the Lucky Dawg Club."

Kerr represents a vanishing style of columnist in daily newspapers: deeply sourced and close to the pulse of power. Her columns could be funny or tough, soothing or scolding.

Deborah Fisher, now the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government but a longtime Tennessean manager, edited Kerr's columns for several years.

"It was clear to me that she loved Nashville. Her best columns revealed that," Fisher said. "I think sometimes the reason she could do that was because you could never question Gail's commitment to Nashville. She wasn't always writing about bad things that have happened. She could write a column that would be pretty courageous, and the next day she could pour her heart out for someone in the community who was helping others. She wasn't afraid to praise public officials, or the city when it did something right. But she also wasn't afraid to call them on the carpet when something was wrong."

And in a newsroom that had frequent turnover, Kerr was the unofficial background for young reporters new to the city.

"She knew the city so well and could explain it to anyone," Fisher said.

In addition to cancer, Kerr also suffered from multiple sclerosis, which she wrote about powerfully in a three-part series in 2001. At that intersection of personal experience and empathy for others, Kerr was at her best.

"It was hard for me to learn to ask for help, but good to learn to take it. I've asked myself this question a million times: Would I mind if someone asked ME to do this thing for them? Like give them a lift home? No way would I mind. They don't, either. My friends — particularly my husband and my three book-club babes — have been incredible about hauling me around after dark.

I learned to ride each wave of grief. Just as each wave of an ocean is different, grief is a series of different feelings. There may be similar waves that come later, but you can't ignore any single one that hits. The ocean is mostly calm these days.

I've learned not to blame everything on MS. If I drink too much wine and have a headache the next day, that's not the MS; that's a hangover.

I've learned not to run in fear when I meet someone who uses a wheelchair or a walker. I may have to use those one day, but I may not. I hope not. Those folks are just using every tool they need to keep living, loving, working and playing. If I have to I will, too."

Kerr is survived by her husband Les, her mother Peggy McKnight and her sister Joyce McLean. Funeral arrangements are pending.