The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Nancy Kerns Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen.

November 21, 2014


Nancy Elizabeth Kerns (née Klahn) was born in 1956 in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where her father operated a RV dealership. Active in sports growing up, Kerns was a strong student who participated in the debate team while in high school. After graduating from Klamath Union High School in 1974, she enrolled at Oregon State University. After considering majors in history and business, Kerns opted for the American Studies program within the College of Liberal Arts, an interdisciplinary option that allowed her to engage with topics in political philosophy, history, cultural anthropology, and religion. While at OSU, Kerns also interned at the Oregon legislature for six months, working in the office of the Senate Majority Leader.

Kerns graduated from Oregon State in 1978. That fall, she began attending law school at the University of Tulsa, and she completed her juris doctor degree in 1981. From there, Kerns returned to Oregon to take the bar exam and, after passing it, accepted a position in the Portland area with Nike. In 1983 she returned to her hometown of Klamath Falls to begin working as an associate attorney for a local law firm. After relocating once more to Portland for a short period of time, Kerns came back to Klamath Falls in 1985, spending the next year as a legal clerk supporting the activities of the Oregon Trial Court.

When her clerkship ended in 1986, Kerns decided to take a vacation. Her first stop along the way was Pendleton, Oregon where, through a chance encounter with the local district attorney, she was offered a job as the deputy district attorney for Umatilla County. After spending seven years working in this capacity, Kerns began a private legal practice, a move which afforded her more flexibility to care for her first child. She spent seven additional years running her own practice, during which time she also taught courses in criminal justice at Blue Mountain Community College and served on both the Umatilla County Mental Health Board as well as the Umatilla County Planning Commission.

In 2006, Kerns was hired as the assistant city attorney for the city of Pendleton, her primary duties being to advise the city administration and city council on issues of risk management and other legal needs. She also spent more time involved with municipal law as opposed to the criminal cases that she had pursued previously. Five years later, in 2011, she was promoted to city attorney - the first woman in Pendleton history to occupy this position. As city attorney, Kerns is the city's lead prosecutor in municipal court cases. She also advises the city council and attends their meetings, and is heavily involved with real estate transactions and insurance claims. Kerns likewise works for the Pendleton Development Commission, a group that is focused on boosting community and economic development.