ELYSBURG — Robert John Kerris Sr., 90, an important figure in the area’s anthracite coal industry in the last half of the 20th century and a self-made and highly respected businessman, died Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in Geisinger Medical Center, Danville. He was once co-owner of several coal production and related businesses that simultaneously employed close to 200 people.
He was born Aug. 1, 1928, in Mount Carmel, a son of the late Peter and Helen (Rosinski) Koncewicz.
He attended St. Joseph Church Elementary School in Mount Carmel and was a 1946 graduate of Mount Carmel High School.
Bob’s involvement in the anthracite coal industry started in the mid-1940s when he and Ed Helfrick, then high school seniors, began what became a long-term and highly productive partnership. They began with a delivery truck which they used to transport coal to the Philadelphia area. Their families thought they were just working late afternoons and on weekends, but the truth is, they each occasionally invented excuses so they could skip school to devote time to their fledgling business. Bob and Ed continued their affiliation after high school, investing in a dump truck and bulldozer for hauling and loading coal.
In 1954, when the local coal industry experienced a serious economic downturn, Bob and his partner ventured to French Guyana in South America to dredge for gold in the Boulanger River. They learned about this opportunity through a newspaper advertisement placed by a company in Washington, D.C., that was looking for a reputable firm that could do excavation. Five or six local residents accompanied them to work in extremely harsh conditions 50 miles into the interior of the country. Working on the Boulanger, they spent much of their day battling large snakes, and their safety was dependent on them carrying side arms with them at all times. Bob and Ed were in South America about three years, and although they earned very little from the work, the learning experience was invaluable to them in charting their business careers.
When they returned to the area in 1957, the partners did ground excavation work at the site that became the Selinsgrove School. They were also involved in a coal stripping business in Centralia, and around the late 1950s, they officially incorporated their business as Kerris and Helfrick Inc.
In 1966, Kerris and Helfrick purchased the Glen Burn Colliery from Susquehanna Coal Co. In 1969, they acquired the International Truck dealership to form Norco Truck and Diesel. They later started Bear Gap Stone, a quarry, in 1968. In the 1960s, they also purchased the former Sayre property, near Mount Carmel, from Jack Cullen and Jack Lynott.
Over the years, the Kerris and Helfrick firm was involved in projects to extinguish mine fires at the east end of Mount Carmel and in Kulpmont, Forestville and Summit Hill, and in a drilling project to locate a mine fire at Coal Run.
Bob retired from the coal business around 1984. However, the quarry was operated for another 10 years or so. Some of the ground previously used for Bob’s coal operation was transformed into the housing development known as Den-Mar Gardens, and was also developed as the sites for Northwestern Academy, Walmart and Reinhart Foodservice.
Bob was well known throughout the region for his vast knowledge of anthracite. He was strongly committed to anthracite coal research. While he and Ed owned Glen Burn, they worked with LAREDO to establish what became a successful and widely acclaimed coal mine tour there. He also worked with other coal operators on the wage committee during meetings with representatives of the United Mine Workers.
Bob was proud of his tenure as a member of the board of Liberty State Bank in Mount Carmel. As a board member and later as president, he played a major leadership role in resolving the bank’s financial problems. He helped spearhead a successful merger of Liberty Bank with Commonwealth Bank, and served for a time as a member of the Commonwealth Bank board in Williamsport.
He was a member of Divine Redeemer Church, Mount Carmel. Of great comfort to the family is the many times people in the community, including former employees, commented about how fair Bob was in his dealings with others. He was great at solving problems of all kinds, always showing diplomacy and great tact in handling even the most stressful situations. His family and friends were always impressed by how good Bob was at fixing practically anything and his skill in telling others how to “do it right.” Bob and his younger brother, Dan, came by their fix-it skills thanks to all the time they spent “loafing” in the garage of their uncle John Rosinski, a coal hauler and all-around mechanic, who lived next door to them while they were growing up.
When much younger, Bob enjoyed raising and racing pigeons.
Bob enjoyed traveling, especially with his wife and their dog, throughout New England in his RV. He mainly enjoyed his home and adjoining grounds and spent a great deal of time handling outdoor chores there. In fact, passers-by were known to assume he was the hired gardener.
His family laughs that Bob loved a shiny new car and brand new equipment, but was equally proud that his pants were 20 years old, still in good condition and he could still fit in them. Generous to a fault in helping people and worthy causes, he was also extremely frugal in his purchasing decisions. He thought nothing about giving someone who needed it a $1,000, but he always made sure to watch his pennies.
He and his wife, the former Maria Swinko, were married Dec. 8, 1984, in Alexandria, Virginia.
Bob was much loved and will be greatly missed by his family.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his three children, Robert Jr. and his wife, Susan, of Elysburg, David and his wife, Beth, of Hummelstown, and Debra Reed and her husband, Don, of Newtown Square; grandchildren, (Robert Jr.’s family) Robert III and his wife, Beth, of Silver Spring, Maryland, and their daughter, Annelies, and Kelly Gayed and her husband, Bishoy, of Pittsburgh, and their son, Grant, and (Debra’s children), Daniel and Michael, both of Newtown Square; a brother, Dan Kerris, of Kulpmont; a nephew, Daniel Kerris and his wife, Jacqueline, of Kulpmont, and their children, John Daniel, Ryan and Ella May; and a niece, Diane Fazio, of Riverview, Florida, and her daughter, Sarah.
KERRIS — Robert John Kerris Sr., 90, of Elysburg. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at 11 a.m. Monday at Divine Redeemer Church, 438 W. Avenue, Mount Carmel, with the Rev. Ryan Fischer and the Rev. Frank Karwacki concelebrating. Burial will be in All Saints Cemetery, Bear Gap. Viewing will be in the C.J. Lucas Home, 27 N. Vine St., Mount Carmel, from 6 to 9 p.m. Sunday and 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. Monday. C.J. Lucas Funeral Home Inc., 1053 Chestnut St., Kulpmont, C.J. Lucas, supervisor, is assisting with arrangements.