Iron worker killed on campus was diligent veteran of Chicago construction

Michael Kerr and his older brother Patrick Kerr take a break from working at a Chicago construction site in an undated photo. Patrick Kerr came out of retirement in the late 2000s and worked alongside his younger brother.

Patrick Svitek, Managing Editor

About a decade ago, Jackie Rowles was taking a Wendella tour of Chicago when she realized her brother should be the one at the front of the double-decker boat pointing out the city’s crowning achievements in architecture.

“Mike could do a better job,” Rowles said she thought. “He could give you a tour of the city of Chicago and know every building and its construction.”

Michael Kerr, a lifelong iron worker whose fingerprints can be found all over the Chicago skyline, died May 16 after he was struck by a falling beam at the lakefront construction site of the Northwestern’s new Music and Communication Building. He was 57.

Those closest to Kerr remember him as a diligent family man whose affinity for working with his hands was rivaled only by his love for the Chicago Blackhawks and anything that could float.

“He was a tough guy, but just a gentle man,” Rowles said. “He has 12 nieces and nephews who thought the world of him.”

Kerr was born Jan. 28, 1956, on the South Side of Chicago. Growing up, Kerr was his mother’s “pride and joy,” Rowles said. His siblings could not help but agree. “He was our favorite, too,” Rowles added.

From an early age, Kerr gravitated toward ice and water, whether he was splashing around in a G.I. Joe raft or finding his way to the nearest rink. Rowles joked Kerr learned to skate before he could walk.

His passion for the sport led him to a brief stint with the Danville Dashers, a semi-professional team based near the Illinois-Indiana border.

The hockey obsession never left Kerr as he grew older and remained a loyal fan of Chicago’s professional hockey team.

“Everything was about the Hawks,” Rowles said, adding Kerr was buried in his Blackhawks jersey.

In the early 1970s, Michael Kerr became an iron worker after his brother Patrick Kerr, 66, introduced him to the trade. Michael Kerr caught on quickly, his calm demeanor an appropriate fit for the high pressure that comes with wearing a hardhat in one of the county’s largest cities.

“He was conscientious. He was real safe. He was never rattled,” Patrick Kerr said. “No matter how tough things got … when the stress was on, it just never bothered him.”

Al Spyrka, who met Michael Kerr in the 1990s and steadily worked alongside him over the past decade, described his friend as a role model for construction workers who never thought twice and “dealt with things the way they were.”

Michael Kerr had a hand in building Chicago attractions such as Soldier Field, Millennium Park and U.S. Cellular Field, according to his family. In the late 2000s, Patrick Kerr came out of retirement to work alongside Michael Kerr on Block Thirty Seven, a shopping, dining and entertainment complex in the Loop.

All along, Michael Kerr was “not afraid of work” or of rolling up his sleeves and bringing his trademark cool to the most stressful tasks, his older brother said.

“He wasn’t a talker,” Patrick Kerr said. “He didn’t say too much, so when he said something, people listened.”

With more than two decades of construction experience under his belt, Michael Kerr was considering laying down his hardhat in the next few years, his family said.

In a recent conversation with his older brother, Michael Kerr hinted he was ready for a change of pace, preferably one in which he could devote more time to his Harley Davidson motorcycle or aquatic excursions.

“He just bought another boat, a big one,” recalled Patrick Kerr, who lives in Melbourne Beach, Fla. “He called me up and said, ‘I bought my retirement home.'”

Spyrka said Michael Kerr imparted a valuable lesson to him that speaks to his longtime friend’s philosophy.

“Embrace life with everything you have while you have the chance,” Spyrka said. “That’s the type of guy he was.”

In addition to a 21-year-old son by the same name, Michael Kerr is survived by fiance Mary Tarne, 51; stepson Pete Woznicki, 30; and stepdaughter Nikki McDermott, 31.

A funeral service was held May 21 at Lincoln Ridge Funeral Home in Schererville, Ind.