Dr. Tom Kerns leads the rosary at St. Paul Church in Eugene in 2003, the night before the funeral for his granddaughter Mary Kerns. Dr. Kerns himself would die in 2005. (Courtesy Bob Kerns)
Dr. Tom Kerns leads the rosary at St. Paul Church in Eugene in 2003, the night before the funeral for his granddaughter Mary Kerns. Dr. Kerns himself would die in 2005. (Courtesy Bob Kerns)
When my parents knelt in a pew at St. Anne Church in Grants Pass on Easter morning 1946, I have no doubt they were praying to God that they were doing the right thing. The day before, Dr. Tom and Tops Kerns had stepped off a bus from Bremerton, Washington, with two children, ages 2 and 4. My mother was five-months pregnant with number three of eight. Just out of the Navy following World War II, my dad was launching his career as a small town family doctor. His daily prayer was always “to know and do God’s will this day.” And this day would be the first of many busy ones.

On that unseasonably hot Easter afternoon they toted the kids through downtown Grants Pass until they finally found a motel that would take children. Short on cash, Easter dinner consisted of hamburgers. In the coming weeks, they bought a used car and moved into a house.

Like many small towns — then and now — Grants Pass was short of doctors. When Dad arrived, there was only one physician serving the area, another having just retired. Dad hung up his shingle at the recently vacated doctor’s office and got to work. Sometimes after a long day he’d arrive home to find patients, who knew his address, parked in front of the house, waiting in their cars with a sick child. He’d take them into the house, look them over, peek into their ears and give them a prescription. And when they couldn’t come to him there were the house calls — for which he charged $5 each.

Both of my parents became involved at St. Anne’s. Mom joined the Altar Society and Dad the Knights of Columbus. Dad joined a community charity organization and Mom started a bridge club.

In some ways my dad’s early life was shaped by adversity, forcing him to face realities at an early age. He was born into a happy home in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. His father was a small-town dentist, his mother taught music and led their church choir.

But by the time Dad was 7, his mother had died from a thyroid disorder. When he was 14 his brother Bob succumbed to rheumatic fever. Two years later a drunk driving crash killed his father and two months after that his other brother, Pat, died from the same disease that took Bob. His uncles and aunts took Dad in, but by age 16, he found himself essentially alone in the world.

In his memoirs he described a guiding insight that came to him when he was 17. “Nobody else could do things for me anymore,” he wrote. “Nobody could make me do anything either. If something was going to be done, I had to do it myself.” His faith in God came into a sharper focus. “At that time, I realized the importance of faith and began to pray for a strong faith.”

For most of his life, he attended Mass every day. One of the main reasons the family moved to Eugene was the fact that, in 1949, there was no Catholic school in Grants Pass.

They plugged themselves into Eugene’s Catholic community right away. He became the team physician for the St. Francis High School football team. He treated the Carmelite nuns at their monastery just outside of town, without charge, for decades. He supported Catholic Charities by treating unwed mothers for free.

My dad remembered in painful detail seeing his father stagger through the house, late at night, with a bottle in one hand. “I felt a deep, sick, nauseated feeling in the pit of my stomach,“ he wrote. He was never abused, but his experiences made him more sympathetic to the alcoholic and their families. He knew they were sick people who deserved the best possible treatment.

Fifty years ago, very few physicians were trained in the treatment of alcoholism or addiction so he set out to learn everything he could about the disease, especially from alcoholics themselves. When my dad died in 2005, one of his colleagues told our family, “Your dad loved the alcoholic.” After many years of struggle, he co-founded Serenity Lane in 1973, a private, nonprofit treatment center for alcoholism and drug abuse that has, at last count, treated more than 65,000 patients.

As busy as his office hours were, being present with each and every one of his patients was critical to him. And every day until he died in 2005 he asked God to use him for divine purposes. As a doctor, as a parent, as a Catholic, his calling was clear: To be an answer to someone’s prayers.