INDIANAPOLIS — 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.
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.
“Joe Kernan was a steady hand of leadership at a difficult time for our state," Vice President Mike Pence, a former Indiana governor, said in a statement. “Even though our politics differed, Joe Kernan was always kind, always willing to work together for Hoosiers, and Joe Kernan was my friend."
A gregarious campaigner who was a catcher on the University of Notre Dame’s baseball team, Kernan was widely praised for the smooth transition after the first death of an Indiana governor since 1891.
“This was uncharted territory,” Republican state Sen. James Merritt said to Kernan during a ceremony just days before he left office in early 2005. “This was your legacy — calm leadership in a crisis.”
Current Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, said of Kernan: “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," Holcomb said in a statement.
Kernan enlisted in the Navy following his 1968 Notre Dame graduation and he flew as a navigator on combat missions over Laos and North Vietnam. His reconnaissance plane was shot down during a mission over North Vietnam on May 7, 1972. He ejected and was captured, beginning an 11-month ordeal as a prisoner of war that ended when he was flown out of Hanoi on March 27, 1973.
The worst day of captivity came early on, he said, when he talked with another POW.
“He told me that our escort had lost us and that we were presumed dead,” Kernan said in a 2002 interview. “My family thought I was dead, and if the Navy thought I was dead, the thing that goes through your mind is that there’s no reason for these guys to keep me alive.”
For decades, Kernan marked every May 7 by playing golf, eating a pizza and drinking some beer. He said he remembered the date of his capture each year “without question,” but sometimes he didn’t remember the anniversary of his release until a day or a week later.
“I think it’s because if there hadn’t have been a May 7th, there never would have been a March 27th,” Kernan said. “It was the day my life changed.”
Kernan’s actions as governor included picking former state budget director Kathy Davis to replace him as lieutenant governor — making her the first woman to serve either as Indiana’s governor or lieutenant governor.
He also became the first Indiana governor in 48 years to spare the life of a death row inmate when he stopped an execution just days before it was scheduled to occur in 2004. Kernan said he decided it would be unfair to execute Darnell Williams for the 1986 murders of a Gary couple when a mentally disabled accomplice got a life sentence. Williams’ sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.
Kernan had decided against a 2004 run for governor the year before O’Bannon’s death. He changed his mind two months after taking over the state’s top office, declaring “I don’t want to watch this from the sidelines.”
Republicans attacked Kernan over the state government’s budget deficit and tens of thousands of job losses, with Democrats blaming the problems on the 2001 national recession following the dot-com bust. Kernan lost what was then Indiana’s most-expensive gubernatorial campaign to Daniels, who had been President George W. Bush’s federal budget director and is now Purdue University’s president.
Kernan grew up in the northern Indiana city of South Bend as the oldest of nine siblings. After his return from Vietnam, he married his wife, Maggie, and worked for local businesses before becoming city controller and then winning his first of three mayoral elections in 1987. The couple had no children.
No public funeral services will be held at this time because of the coronavirus pandemic, Downes said.
After leaving the governor's office, Kernan led a group of investors who owned South Bend’s minor league baseball team for about five years before selling it in 2011. Kernan’s group stopped the team from being moved away from the city, but he said the franchise never turned a profit.
“I was not as happy about the baseball thing but to him it was like a gift for South Bend,” Maggie Kernan told Notre Dame Magazine earlier this year.
Kernan often said he didn’t have many bad days after his time as a POW. Maggie Kernan said she often saw that perspective.
“Because of his personality and optimistic outlook, he has been able to take it and make something out of it that is positive,” she said. “He will talk about doing something tough and difficult and say, ‘What are they going to do, send me to jail? I’ve already been there.’”