Former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan Remembered


Former Gov. Joe Kernan Remembered

By Isaac Gleitz

INDIANAPOLIS—Rep. Patrick Bauer remembers his friend and colleague Joe Kernan as a man who could talk with people in spite of their differences better than anyone he’s ever known, and the South Bend Democrat has seen a lot in his 50-plus years in politics.

“He liked people, and people liked him…He could bridge a lot of gaps,” Bauer said of Kernan, who died Wednesday of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease at age 74. “I think everybody that Joe got to know ended up being good friends with him.”

Former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan, who died Wednesday.

Bauer and the other public officials who offered tributes to Kernan all talked about his dedication to public service and his strength of character from his year as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam to his tenure as mayor of South Bend and later as lieutenant governor and then governor of Indiana.

“When Gen. Douglass McArthur talked about duty, honor and country, the general was talking exactly about Joe Kernan,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said Wednesday during his weekly press briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic.

“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,” Holcomb said in a separate press release.

“His optimism and his positive attitude built every place up that he worked at… the baseball field, in the mayor’s office, lieutenant governor and governor’s office,” Bauer said.

Former Gov. Mitch Daniels, who beat Kernan in the 2004 governor’s race, called him a friend. Daniels is now president of Purdue University.

“Joe Kernan was at different times my ally, opponent, and advisor, but always a friend to me, and as far as I could tell,  to everyone he met,” Daniels said of his one-time political rival in a statement. “He was a true leader, and we have lost him far too soon.”

Kernan was born on April 8, 1946, in Chicago and ended up in South Bend when his family moved there when he was 10. He was two years behind Bauer at St. Joseph High School and, like Bauer, he attended Notre Dame University where he played baseball.

In 1972 as a flight officer in the Navy, he was on a mission over North Vietnam when his plane was shot down. He spent the next year as a prisoner of war.

After the war, Kernan returned to South Bend and spent a number of years in business before becoming involved in politics. Elected mayor of South Bend in 1987, he served for three terms.

Bauer said that as mayor, Kernan was available to his constituents, adding, “He listened to people and responded to the needs of the city.”

Kernan was elected lieutenant governor in 1996, serving with Gov. Frank O’Bannon, and the team was re-elected in 2000. Kernan became governor in September 2003 when O’Bannon died suddenly of a stroke. He lost a bid for a full term the next year to Daniels.

He remained active in local politics and civic life when he returned to South Bend and, along with other investors, helped keep a minor league baseball team in town.

“His optimism and his positive attitude built every place up that he worked at… the baseball field, in the mayor’s office, lieutenant governor and governor’s office,” Bauer said.

Bauer’s sentiments were shared by many civic leaders. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett called him a great role model who “never before wavered in his principled dedication to doing the right thing.”

Rep. Brian Bosma, a Republican and former speaker of the House, said, “There were no finer gentlemen in politics. He was always upbeat and always had the best interest of Hoosiers in his heart.”

Indiana Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kevin Brinegar said, “Joe Kernan was one of the most down-to-earth and humble people in a world that is too often lacking those qualities.”

“He worked tirelessly to improve the lives of all Hoosiers, a commitment he held throughout his entire life. I hope every Hoosier will pledge to carry on his amazing legacy and live by his timeless example,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. André Carson of Indianapolis.

Holcomb has directed that flags be flown at half-staff until Aug. 5 to honor Kernan’s life and service.

He is survived by his wife, Maggie. Funeral arrangements are being handled at Welsheimer’s Funeral Home in South Bend.

FOOTNOTE: Isaac Gleitz is a reporter for, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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