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March 13, 2015

Namesakes - Laura Kerr Axtell and the Kerr Professorship in Mathematics

In the spring of 1885, the 4-year-old Case School of Applied Science boasted an enrollment of 39 and a faculty of 7. Tuition was $50 for the year. The financial statement for 1885 reported gross income of a little more than $239,000.

In May 1885 Laura Kerr Axtell donated to the school real estate valued at approximately $125,000 to endow a professorship in Mathematics in honor of her brother, Levi Kerr. One can only imagine the reaction of the trustees upon receving a gift equivalent to 52% of the school’s total annual income. The Kerr Professorship was the first endowed professorship established at Case School of Applied Science.

Laura and Levi were cousins of Case’s founder, Leonard Case, Jr. Levi had served as administrator of Leonard’s estate and was one of the original incorporators and trustees of Case School of Applied Science. Brother and sister were both born in Mentor, Laura in 1818 and Levi in 1822. More is known of Levi’s life than Laura’s. In his teens he spent 3 years in the West Indies and Japan. Upon his return to America he worked in the dry-goods business in New York. He later relocated to western Pennsylvania where oil was found on a tract of land he had purchased and later sold to Standard Oil. Levi returned to northeast Ohio around 1870 and prospered as a banker and businessman until his death in 1885 in a drowning accident in Florida.

Laura inherited a sizable estate from her brother, which enabled her gift to Case. One obituary described her as “liberal in her benefactions.” During her life and at her death in 1890 she was a generous supporter of Case, the Lake Erie Seminary, and several Episcopal churches in the Painesville area.

Francisca Himmelsbach painting of Laura Kerr Axtell

Kerr Professors and the dates they held the professorship are:

John N. Stockwell, 1886-1887
Harry F. Reid, 1887-1889
Charles S. Howe, 1890-1908
Theodore M. Focke, 1908-1944
Sidney W. McCuskey, 1945-1971
James C. Alexander, 1998-2008
Stanislaw Szarek, 2009-

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