Steve Kerr spent two separate school years in Cairo. There were summers in Beirut and Tunisia, another year in France, and road trips circling the Mediterranean in a Volkswagen van. Steve “was not always thrilled,” he admitted, to leave friends and the comfort of California. He hated to miss sports camps and football and basketball games at U.C.L.A., where the Kerrs had season tickets.
In hindsight, though, his family’s long history in the Middle East, beginning nearly 100 years ago, shaped him in ways that he only now realizes.
“It’s an American story, something I’m very proud of, the work that my grandparents did,” Kerr said. “It just seemed like a time when Americans were really helping around the world, and one of the reasons we were beloved was the amount of help we provided, whether it was after World War I, like my grandparents, or World War II. I’m sort of nostalgic for that sort of perception. We were the good guys. I felt it growing up, when I was living in Egypt, when I was overseas. Americans were revered in much of the Middle East. And it’s just so sad what has happened to us the last few decades.”
Kerr was in high school when his father was named president of A.U.B. in 1982. It was Malcolm Kerr’s dream job. But the appointment came as Lebanon was embroiled in civil war. Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, expelled from Syria, had its headquarters in Beirut. Iranian Shiites, followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had moved into Lebanon and given voice to the impoverished Shiite minority there. The Christian population was shrinking, and Lebanon was in the middle of a tug of war between Israel and Syria.
“I bet there’s a 50-50 chance I’ll get bumped off early on,” Malcolm Kerr told his daughter, Susan, in March 1982, she recalled in her memoir, “One Family’s Response to Terrorism.”
He accepted the job the next morning. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the countermove by the Iranians to send its Iranian Revolutionary Guards there through Syria, began in June 1982, weeks before Malcolm Kerr was to start the new job. In the chaos, Iran-backed militants were organizing and would eventually become Hezbollah.
Malcolm Kerr was kept in New York until things settled, but A.U.B.’s acting president, David Dodge, was kidnapped in July, and A.U.B. was in need of leadership. Malcolm Kerr arrived in August, expressing hope that the destruction and death closing in on the campus could be kept outside its walls. (Dodge, who was released by his captors after a year, died in 2009.)