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Remembering John Kerr, a credit union colossus.

John Kerr

 

I first met John   in 1972 in Bert Mullen’s Drumchapel home where I was sharing my experience as a director of Derry Credit Union during the sixties. He was one of a group of enthusiastic credit union pioneers, led by Bert, Bill Murphy and the McSeveneys. I was living in Edinburgh at the time and used to go through at weekends to conduct workshops on management and operational issues. Bert founded Scotland’s first credit union in Drumchapel in 1971.

Liz and I went to teach in Zambia  and I lost touch with Bert, John and the Group.  In the mid-eighties, as a headteacher in Tullibody, I was asked to write a piece on self confidence and learning for a newsletter being published by a multi-agency regeneration group, including Central Region. In the text of the article, I mentioned credit union as a proven vehicle for enhancing individual and community self-esteem. Unknown to me, John had given up the Glasgow taxi-business and was now working as a credit union development officer in Stirling and soon after the publication was released, his radiant smile and 100 decibel tie illuminated my school office.  I didn’t have the time then to play a very active role in credit union but we were in regular contact. John was in utopia, being paid to assist communities and he tackled the work with total enthusiasm.  I doubt, if there ever was a more committed and dedicated local authority officer.   He frequently called on me to address groups across Scotland on the ideals of credit union and how it had the power to change lives.

In 1993, he asked me to give the Keynote Speech at the launch of the Scottish League of Credit Unions.

“Give them plenty of the philosophy – we are a movement of people not money!”  All of us who knew and admired John Kerr recognise that as a true indicator of his character. The pool of poverty which he experienced in Glasgow was the spring which shaped the momentum of his life activity and  what a force that was. Inertia was anathema to John.   That first meeting in Cranhill was an extraordinary occasion and not just for the bowls of soup. Here was a group of people, committed to the service of others, gathered together to launch an umbrella organisation which recognised the unique identity and character of  the Scottish people as a nation.

Occasionally he could be brutally honest; his antennae quickly detected those with a dysmorphic sense of their own importance.  John and I were invited by Chancellor Brown to attend a conference in Murrayfield which was addressed by Bill McDonough, CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. His theme was John’s raison d’être,  ‘Connecting Finance with Communities’ . McDonough  made the point forcibly that sending self-appointed experts from outside of the community to identify problems and develop solutions doesn’t work. Among those present was Fred Goodwin of  RBS who had previously been appointed Convener of a Credit Union Task Force by Gordon Brown – a task force which was singularly unrepresentative of the Scottish movement. John and Fred had disagreed forcefully at an earlier meeting. There was a mingling over coffee after the Murrayfield  meeting and Fred came across to talk to John who greeted him with;

“You’ll know all about these self-appointed experts, Fred”.    Goodwin just laughed but those around us took the point, although some of the professional sycophants were discomfited at the overt nature of John’s exchange.

He also valued people and went out of his way to commend commitment and contribution.  One of my first tasks when I joined the League, was to write a critique of ABCUL’s proposals for a Central Service’s Organisation. When he read my response, John said,

You have slain the CSO monster – the pen is mightier than the sword!”  I was to learn later that on reading the League response that a bank executive, who was to underwrite the project, pulled the plug.

John Kerr’s life was the physical manifestation of the principles of the Credit Union Movement;

  • His commitment to democracy – he wanted always to be certain that ownership and policy making were in the hands of members and not decided by a few behind closed doors;
  • He firmly believed that the credit union must be worthy of the patronage of members in the quality of services it provided and that they were members on a purely voluntary basis;
  • Autonomy, he claimed, was an essential of liberty; his distrust of the FSA and the Westminster Government arose from the justifiable belief that they were wrongly exercising powers that belonged to the the owners of the movement, credit union members. His wrath at Brown’s decision, with the collusion of ABCUL, to increase the monthly interest rate was borderline explosive;
  • Mutuality was a driving force in John Kerr’s life; he repudiated the exploitation of any single human being for the benefit of another;
  • He believed that we are a universal movement, seeking one of mankind’s basic desires, economic security. He was delighted when the League joined the International Raiffeisen Union, forming common cause, not just with other not-for-profit financial organisations, but with  the generic, co-operative movement across the World;
  • John recognised that it was through growth and development, the acceptance  and implementation of technological advance that credit unions could provide the highest quality of service to members. The alternative was stagnation.   He had been personally responsible for the establishment of many small credit unions in Central Scotland but understood that their future viability rested on the ability to change and adapt to circumstances.  
    • At his funeral service, Fr Vincent Lockhart described John as not just a good man but a great one. All of us who knew him  will subscribe to that.
    • He was a man of resolute, brilliant unorthodoxy;
    • He was charismatic, gregarious, inspirational, unpretentious and approachable;
    • He had a passionate insistence on the humanity and dignity of the poor
    • He immatured with age and we all marvelled at the childlike  wonder and curiosity that he brought to each new project and his life was full of them;
    • When the representative of the Asylum seekers proclaimed at his funeral service ‘we have lost John, our great chief’, her words resonated with every credit union member and beyond.

We remember   a leader of incomparable stature whose innate decency, vision and transparent integrity touched the lives of each and every one of us. He would want us to continue his work   with the same drive and energy that characterised his life.

Let’s do it.

 

 

16 Comments
  1. John thank you, I love that you take time to write about my Dad. Just the other day I came across 3 notebooks, one which many friends and family shared wonderful memories of my Mum, the other two where when written when my Dad retired from his involvement in Cranhill community project and the other when he died. I can barely get passed the first few comments without crying. They where both incredible people and I am honoured to call them mum and Dad. I will never tire of reading your beautifully articulated memories of my much loved and missed parents. Thank you, from my heart which bursts with pride having just read your article.

    Ps. I am taking responsibility for the many pots of soup shared over the years x

    • Patricia, thank you for your kind words.
      Your father meant a great deal to many people and did a lot for even more. If I didn’t see him every day for about ten years, we spoke on the phone. It took me a long time to press the delete button for John Kerr on my phone contacts. He and your mum would both be proud of the continuing involvement of the Kerr family in trying to improve the life of Scottish communities

  2. Hi John,
    many thanks for a wonderful article describing the passions and life of my father, using the credit union movement to carry his message to the many. It never ceases to amaze me how big an impact he had on so many people, not only through the credit union but also in all the community activities he was involved in. The key words that stand out for me in your article are, resolute, unorthodox, charismatic, gregarious, inspirational, unpretentious, approachable, passionate and above all dignity. He had bucket loads of all of these characteristics and I like to think that all of his offspring have inherited a proportion of all of these. I particularly like the idea of immaturing with age. Once again many thanks and good health to you.

  3. Thanks, Tom and a belated happy birthday to you.
    Your choice of words to describe your father are exactly what I would highlight.
    I didn’t reflect on your mum in the piece but she was integral to the many things that they both achieved.

    We miss them both

  4. Thanks for this wonderful tribute John. I agree with the others. John was an outstanding person and someone who taught me so much – but without teaching. I remember when he was asked to be part of the Broadcasting Council for Scotland and he thought it was very funny when a big black limo arrived outside his flats to take him to meetings with the great and good. I worked for the Beeb at that time and he knew everyone at the top there and was at ease with them as he was with everybody else. Thanks again. Matt Driver.

    • Thanks, Matt.
      I had a tangential relationship with the Broadcasting Council through schools broadcasting and my friend, David Campbell who was a producer in Glasgow at that time. John and I met John McCormack much later at a social occasion and he greeted John like an old friend. John and I, together with John Milne of the FSA did a lunchtime piece with Lesley Riddoch. You can imagine what confusion JohnX3 caused. Don’t think the listeners coped.

  5. John – thanks for the reminder of how great JK was, I knew him for all too short a time but like many others he left a lifelong impression – I can only aspire to be half the man he was, in a week where we lost Mandella, the respect, compassion and integrity of both men is truly inspirational – my craft with words don’t do either justice!

  6. Used to love the impromptu visits…..booming laughter always. Also remember doing a double take when I saw him bounding through the car park in Denny, shouting out to him and being rewarded with a big hug!
    One of those rare individuals who left you feeling good…Thank you Uncle John.

  7. Many will empathise with those memories, Gemma

    • Fully empathise with all of that, Gemma.A monumental inspiration to me ahttp://lallandspeatworrier.blogspot.fr/2015/07/be-critical-have-patience.html?spref=twnd to many others. It took me ages to delete his number from my phone and it pained me to do it

  8. You’re right Tam.Immaturing with age is a great description of your dad later in life. I don’t remember a time when I was laughing heartily with your dad.
    I remember thinking when he so sadly passed away ‘what the hell are we all gonna do now’ and I live in Manchester of course!!
    But of course he had taught well and passed on his warmth either be teaching or genes to allow the Cranhill CU to continue to thrive of course with the wonderful Ellen Kerr II at the helm.
    My mother Betty still works in the CU at the ripe old age of ??
    This is all thanks to John Ellen and wee Ellen.
    Wonderful family

  9. Thanks for this and appreciate that at the time I was on the other side of the fence ie abcul my (credit union has since left the organisation) my memories of John were always wary of what he was going to do to further his ideas, but always in a jocular and friendly way. I was privileged to attend his funeral and have kept in touch with daughter Lizzie’s. Hope you and yours are well

    • I always felt the philosophy and coherence of the movement were greater than the quasi-political boundaries that grew around it. These were not particular solely to UK but are unfortunately present in most movements across the Globd where policy and interpretation differ.I appreciate your wariness and am grateful for your comment.

  10. John just read your blog on John Kerr and it brings back memories of this great man who I had many discussions on various topics I always found him to a very genuine and generous person who always made time to listen to what you had to say

    • Joe, I first met John in your father’s home, your home. John was a giant who followed in your father’s footsteps- a colossus of the movement.

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