Former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan, a Vietnam prisoner of war who entered politics and was thrust into the state’s top office when his predecessor suffered a deadly stroke, died Wednesday at age 74.
Kernan died at a South Bend health care facility, said Mary Downes, who was his governor’s office chief of staff. Kernan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease several years ago, but his family kept his condition private until disclosing earlier this month that he had lost the ability to speak and was living in a care facility.
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Kernan, a Democrat, won three elections as South Bend’s mayor before being elected lieutenant governor with Gov. Frank O’Bannon in 1996 and 2000. Kernan became governor in September 2003 after O’Bannon’s death and served for 16 months before he lost the 2004 election to Republican Mitch Daniels.
A graduate of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Kernan returned home in 1974 to begin a career in business. In 1980, South Bend Mayor, Roger Parent asked him to serve as the city controller in his administration.
Seven years later in 1987, he was elected to his first of three consecutive terms as mayor of the City of South Bend. In his third election as mayor, he received over 82% of the vote – still the widest margin of victory in the City of South Bend history.
In 1996, Frank O’Bannon, who was running for governor of Indiana, asked Kernan to join him as the candidate for lieutenant governor. O’Bannon and Kernan were elected in November of that year. The team of O’Bannon and Kernan won reelection four years later in 2000.
When O’Bannon died unexpectedly of a stroke in 2003, Kernan was sworn in as the state’s 48th governor. Kernan made history immediately by appointing Kathy Davis as Indiana’s first female lieutenant governor.
Upon retirement from politics in 2005, Kernan moved back to South Bend and convinced 50 other members of the community to purchase the minor league South Bend Silver Hawks baseball team. At the time, the team was precariously close to leaving the city.
Kernan and his investors were able to keep the team in South Bend until a new owner, Andrew Berlin, was found in 2011. Not only did Berlin agree to keep the team in South Bend, he signed a 20-year lease for the stadium at the same time.
Kernan continued to work as an adjunct professor at the University of Notre Dame, and through his own consulting firm until his death earlier today.
“Indiana mourns the loss of Joe Kernan, a bone fide American hero, decorated Navy officer, and truly selfless statesman who always placed the interests of his fellow Hoosiers first,” said Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb in the release.
“Distinguished isn’t a strong enough word to describe him. Without regard for personal cost, Joe Kernan devoted every ounce of his life, time and again, to upholding the oath he took, and serving the country and state he loved.
“Undeterred after being shot down and tortured in Vietnam, he returned and led his beloved City of South Bend as mayor for three terms, and our state as our 47th lieutenant governor. When duty called him to step into a role he didn’t seek, he served as our 48th governor.
“Through his decades of servant leadership and sacrifice, Joe Kernan modeled all the best of what it means to be a Hoosier and his legacy will continue to live on in each of us whom he inspired.
“Janet and I ask Hoosiers across our state to join us in lifting up in prayer Mrs. Kernan, their incredible family, and all whose lives he touched.”
Kernan passed away at 5:30 a.m. this morning after a prolonged illness. Arrangements are being made by Welsheimer’s Funeral Home in South Bend. Kernan, always a loyal friend, had expressed a preference for Welsheimer’s because the funeral home sponsored his little league team in 1958 when he was 12 years old.
“Joe Kernan’s many and noteworthy contributions to Notre Dame, our community, the state and our nation cannot be overstated,” said John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame. “A student-athlete at the University, he earned a bachelor’s degree in government, then entered the Navy and served as a decorated aviator in Vietnam, where he demonstrated uncommon heroism when shot down and held prisoner of war for 11 months.
“As a three-term mayor of South Bend, he set the city on an upward trajectory that continues to this day. He likewise served our state with distinction, first as lieutenant governor and then, upon the sudden passing of Gov. Frank O’Bannon, stepping up as governor.
“In addition to his government service, he was a beloved civic leader who never shied away from challenges. He was always a good friend to Notre Dame, and a friend and support to me personally. We were proud to have him as an alumnus, and as an adjunct faculty member in political science.
“In presenting Joe with an honorary degree in 1998, the University praised him as ‘an accomplished public servant who played a pivotal role in strengthening the University’s town-gown relations.’ He went on to deliver a superb commencement address to the graduating class.
“Our prayers are with his wife, Maggie, their family and his many friends. We grieve over his passing, while simultaneously recognizing a remarkable life. May he rest in peace.”
Memorial contributions may be made to the Veterans Fund at the University of Notre Dame. Please direct your gift to support scholarships and fellowships for military-connected students to giving.nd.edu, by phone at 574-631-5150, or by mail: University of Notre Dame, Department of Development, 1100 Grace Hall, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556.