Mary Burke Kerr (1895-1984) and the Music to the North Carolina State Toast

by Fred C. Kerr

Mary Burke Kerr

This is the story about my grandmother, Mary Burke Kerr, and how she wrote the music to the North Carolina State Toast.

I remember her as a strong, tall and imposing woman. She was a wonderful cook, and a piano teacher who had an incredibly strong grip. I also remember her laughter. Our family visited her often although we lived in Charlotte, and she lived in Clinton. She had two pianos in her home – and our visits often included music with piano playing. When I graduated high school and entered the military, I was able to visit her much less frequently.

Since that time, mainly through my genealogy research, I’ve learned more about her life. This amazing woman was also a Girl Scout Leader, a Piano Teacher, a Church Musician, a caring mother and neighbor, and the composer of the music for the North Carolina State Toast.

She was born in Willard, NC in 1895. Her parents were James Cooper and Elizabeth Burke. Her father was a building contractor, and her mother was a piano teacher. She attended Flora Macdonald College (Class of 1917) in Red Springs, NC. The College Bulletin for 1917-1918 lists her for both Solfeggio (sight singing) and Voice (1918a).

She married my grandfather (Algernon Hubbard Kerr, Sr., a Veterinarian who also was a Lieutenant in the Army) on December 25, 1918, in the Red Springs NC Presbyterian Church. She was very active in Girl Scouts (as a Girl Scout captain in Red Springs, NC), and had met him on a scout outing. Besides being held on Christmas Day, their wedding was unique and special for another reason too. It went down in history as the “First Girl Scout Wedding” ever held in the United States. Sixteen uniformed Girl Scouts were attendants in her wedding and two Boy Scouts were the ushers. She wore her Girl Scout captain’s uniform and my grandfather wore his Army uniform. The newspaper announcement of the wedding said this about her: “Mrs. Kerr is extremely popular here, a tireless worker in church and school and among the Scouts, a talented musician and of most engaging personality…” (1918b).

She taught piano to thousands of children virtually all her adult life. Family members recorded that “She taught piano to anyone wishing to learn, whether or not they could afford the lessons. She continued to teach to when she was about 84 years old, when she entered a rest home.”
Her Sampson County, NC connections are deep.

  • In 1932, she and her husband (my grandfather) moved in the “old Kerr home” at Black River Plantation in Kerr (Sampson County) NC. This is where he was born and spent his childhood.
  • While living there, she composed the music for the NC State Toast.
  • In 1940, they moved to Davidson because two of their children were attending college there. Then in 1942, they returned to the “old Kerr home” in Kerr, NC.
  • My grandfather died in 1959. In 1966, my grandmother remarried Archie Knight Robertson in 1966 and moved with him to Goldsboro, but returned to Clinton after his death in 1968.
  • She remained in Sampson County until her death in 1984.

Composer: Music for NC State Toast

The official North Carolina Toast is a song named “Here’s to the Land of the Long Leaf Pine” which has words and music. Both the words and the music took some time to write, and even more time to get officially recognized.

Mrs. Harry C. (Leonora) Martin – sister-in-law to the Governor of North Carolina – wrote the first verse in 1904 as a poem named “A Toast”. Later, she had composed the last three verses (1912), which were included in the final poem.

My grandmother composed the music for the official North Carolina Toast in 1932. She’d learned the first verse of “A Toast” as a child, and as an adult, a friend had sent her the entire poem. One day in 1932 while driving, she found herself singing the words to the poem, composing the music as she rode along. When she arrived home she wrote the music – then refined it over several years.

Once it was the way she wanted it, she initially copyrighted it on August 1, 1933. The copyright was renewed on July 31, 1961 (1961, p. 669). She dedicated the music to the school children of North Carolina.

It took even more time to become the official North Carolina Toast. A newspaper article of the time states that “…in 1937, an attempt was made to have the General Assembly name the song as the official North Carolina school song. This didn’t come about.”

However, in 1957, the North Carolina General Assembly made the song the Official Toast of North Carolina and Mrs. Kerr was honored by the North Carolina’s Senators and Representatives and by 23 students of the Clinton Glee Club who sang “A Toast” to the Senate and House (RW06 ; newspaper articles; (“Official Toast to the State of North Carolina,” 1957).

Additional information (published by NCPedia at http://ncpedia.org/symbols/toast) is available for review should readers be interested.

REFERENCES

_____. (1912, April 18). The Old North State. The Statesville Sentinel.
_____. (1918a). Bulletin of Flora Macdonald College: Catalogue Number Series 2, No. 10. Charlotte, NC: Queen City Printing Company.
_____. (1918b, December 29). Wedding of Dr. Kerr and Miss Cooper at Red Springs. Wilmington Morning Star.
_____. (1958, August 9). Here’s to Down Home: The story of the State Toast. The State: Down Home in North Carolina, 26.
_____. (1961). Catalog of Copyright Entries (Vol. 15, Part 5, Number 2). Washington, DC: Copyright Office, Library of Congress.

Official Toast to the State of North Carolina, North Carolina S.B. Number 305 Stat. (1957).

A Toast