Banks Kerr Remembered
A profile of the visionary businessman and lifelong friend to the UNC School of Pharmacy
Story by Ashley Mattison | Photos courtesy of the Kerr family | Published January 31, 2023
This story is adapted from a piece that first appeared in the Fall/Winter 2000 volume of Pharmacy Mirror
Banks Kerr’s involvement with pharmacy started early with a job behind the soda fountain at Miller’s Drug Store during high school. This early taste of the profession must have been appealing, because after graduation he headed off to Chapel Hill to study pharmacy. Banks’ success in the drug store business was hinted at by his success at UNC. He was a member of the Rho Chi pharmacy honor society, and in 1943 he graduated number one in his class.
After graduation, Banks worked as a pharmacists before serving in the Army Medical Corps during WWII. After service, he came back to North Carolina, and in 1950 he opened his first drug store. The store, located in the state’s first shopping center, Cameron Village in Raleigh, was the flagship for what would become the Kerr Drug chain. By the time Banks sold the chain to Thrift Drug in 1995, he had built Kerr Drug into 97 stores, making it one of the largest regional pharmacy chains in the country.
Clearly, Banks’ talent for pharmacy was evident since his early days at UNC, but it took more than that to build such a successful business. Bernard “Lock” Lockhart, BSPhar ’42, a long-time friend who worked with Banks for over 35 years attributes much of his success to the fact that “he was a man of vision. He was someone who could visualize something and have the courage to go ahead and accomplish it.” This sense of vision included his realization of how important shopping centers would become to consumers. Banks negotiated leases for larger stores in these new venues, and was able to provide his customers with more products and services in convenient locations.
Although Kerr Drug grew into a formidable chain, Banks always stayed true to his roots as an independent pharmacist. As former dean, Bill Campbell, explains, “he once described his approach to me as a ‘chain of independents,’ where each store was part of the Kerr Drug organization but was also given the flexibility and responsibility to meet the community’s needs. Once of the great strengths of Kerr Drug was that pharmacists felt that they were Banks Kerr’s partners, not his employees.”
That same sentiment is echoes by Lock Lockhart. “Oh, he was good to his staff,” he recalls. “Whether it was a porter, a cosmetician, or even me who he needed to jump on now and again! He was a terrific man.” Lock also relates another important reason for Banks’ success. “Usually behind a good businessman is a good woman, and in this case it was Dot Kerr. They were a team, especially in the early stages.”
Ralph Rogers, Jr., BSPhar ’49, who was friends with Banks since the early 1950s and their association with the the North Carolina Mutual Drug Company, cites an uncommon warmth and friendliness as keys to Banks’ personality and concomitant professional success. “He was a person who it was difficult for anybody not to like,” Ralph explains. “He seemed to cherish everyone’s friendship, and he had a whole lot of friends in the drug industry nationally. He said not long ago, ‘do you know that we’ve known each other for about 40 years and worked together there’s never been a cross word between us?’ And I couldn’t think of anybody else I could say that about.”
Banks Kerr will be remembered by those who knew him as a kind man and a warm and caring friend, but his legacy extends far beyond those who knew him personally. By giving his time and money to organizations that were important to him, Banks has affected the lives of many who never had the privilege of knowing him. One of the places closest to his heart, and one he strongly supported, was Carlina, and the UNC School of Pharmacy.
Although he retired from Kerr Drug, Banks Kerr never retired from pharmacy. He gave to it continuously and in ways that were not always visible, whether providing seed grants to young faculty for their research, giving of his time as a Practioner-in-Residence, supporting the establishment of the Cocolas Professorship, representing pharmacy on the University’s Board of Visitors, or making calls to legislators and friends to drum up support for Kerr Hall. Even just before his death in 2000, he had purchased a building that he hoped would become the permanent home of the Pharmacy Foundation of North Carolina on whose board he served for 30 years. His commitment touched every part of our program, and is one of the things that has contributed to the School’s success.
In 1993, Banks was presented with the Pharmacy Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Award, given to an alum who exemplifies service to the profession of pharmacy as well as to the School. In 1998, he received UNC’s Distinguished Alumnus Award on University Day, the same day ground was broken for Kerr Hall, an addition to the School of Pharmacy for which the Kerrs donated over $2 million.
Banks’ support for the School extended far beyond his monetary generosity, however. As Bill Campbell reflects, “I remember him telling the Chancellor and Provost that the School of Pharmacy’s job was more important – and more difficult – than the other schools at UNC because we not only had to teach today’s students, we had to teach all the practicing pharmacists in the state. Having Banks say this to our University administration made an incredible difference in how they viewed the School of Pharmacy and the work we do.”
Banks’ advocacy for the School reflected his love and strong support for the profession of pharmacy as a whole. According to Ralph Rogers, “he always supported pharmacy projects. He was always receptinve to supporting these projects and worked with the School to give his thoughts as to how to help people in the field better utilize pharmacy graduates or to help the graduates be better prepared for what they would be doing out in the field. I know it was gratifying for him that he was in a position to help as much as he did and is still doing.”
Banks Kerr was a giant in the profession who never forgot where he came from and who stayed true to his beginnings. His legacy remains pervasive in the School. His good friend and Kerr Drug employee Lock Lockhart sums it up best when he tells us that “Banks tried to make sure that everything was right – in his stores and in all areas of his life.”