Joseph E. Kernan, the 48th governor of Indiana and the last Democrat to serve in the position, died early Wednesday morning after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Kernan, 74, served as Indiana lieutenant governor under Frank O’Bannon from 1997 to 2003. After O’Bannon’s death by stroke in September 2003, Kernan filled O’Bannon’s term as governor until 2005, losing a bid for reelection to Republican Mitch Daniels.
As governor, he’s perhaps best known for pushing to fund all-day kindergarten eight years before it became reality in Indiana and for appointing Kathy Davis as the first woman to serve as the state’s lieutenant governor. He also was a Vietnam war veteran, led South Bend for a dozen years as mayor, and after his service as governor, led an effort to reform local government.
Timeline: Gov. Kernan through the years.
Gov. Eric Holcomb directed flags to be flown at half staff through sunset Aug. 5 to honor Kernan.
“Through his decades of servant leadership and sacrifice,” Holcomb said, “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.”
Wednesday, Hoosier leaders from both parties took time to pay tribute to Kernan. Vice President Mike Pence, Indiana’s former Republican governor, said he and his wife, Karen Pence, were deeply saddened by Kernan’s death.
“As lieutenant governor and then governor of Indiana,” Pence said, “Joe Kernan was a steady hand of leadership at a difficult time for our state. Even though our politics differed, Joe Kernan was always kind, always willing to work together for Hoosiers, and Joe Kernan was my friend.”
Former South Bend mayor and one-time presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg posted on Twitter there will not be another like Kernan.
“South Bend will always be proud of his heroism in uniform and his leadership as our mayor and governor,” Buttigieg wrote. “And his friends will always remember his exuberant joy, his compassion for the vulnerable, his ready smile, and his inimitable laugh.”
Kernan known for personal touch in South Bend
Kernan’s adult life began as a United States Navy lieutenant. He and his co-pilot were shot down while on a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam in 1972. He spent 11 months as a POW in Hanoi, including at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison.
Health struggled silenced Kernan:His loved ones can’t say enough about him
After the war, Kernan married his longtime girlfriend, the former Maggie McCullough. He had a bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame and went to work at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati in late 1974 as a manufacturing supervisor.
But the Kernans wanted to return to South Bend, so he took a job as a sales representative at Schwarz Paper Co. in the city. In 1980, South Bend Mayor Roger Parent asked him to serve as the city controller in his administration.
Kernan, who had majored in government, found he liked working for the city.
In 1987, he was elected to his first of three consecutive terms as mayor of South Bend. During his tenure as South Bend mayor from 1988 to 1997, he kept his phone number listed and residents often called him at home. He left office as the longest serving mayor in South Bend’s history, though his successor, Steve Luecke, surpassed him.
“One of the brightest people I know and very serious about getting things done,” said Lou Pierce, owner of Mishawaka-based The Big Idea Company, who for 40 years has consulted Kernan on strategies. “I never met anyone like that.”
Pierce said he once asked Kernan what was the best job he ever had. His response: “mayor.”
“As governor, you don’t get to see up close how your decisions affect people,” Kernan explained. “As mayor, you see it every day.”
Former governor’s legacy:Here’s how Indiana leaders remember Joe Kernan
During his time as mayor, Kernan was known for his personal touch. A longtime friend, Denise Sullivan, recalled a day when Kernan drove by a home on a busy street with the front yard adorned in colorful impatiens. Kernan stopped and wrote on a card that he left in the front door: “Thanks for making South Bend so beautiful.”
“Who does that?” Sullivan, who worked as an assistant in the mayor’s office, recently told Notre Dame Magazine. “He just took that little moment to say thank you for somebody planting flowers in their yard.”
In his time leading the city, Kernan oversaw several key development projects and helped establish the Center for the Homeless after a fire destroyed an apartment building in 1998. The city’s collaboration with Notre Dame on the project drew praise because the university had not been much involved in city issues.
Kernan’s response to the fire “was his most defining moment as mayor,” said Lou Nanni, who was hired as director of the Center for the Homeless two years after it opened. “The mark of a community is what it does for the least among us. It speaks to the soul of a community.”
To mixed reviews, Kernan also put together a taxpayer-heavy financial deal to lure the College Football Hall of Fame from Cincinnati to downtown South Bend. It operated in South Bend for 17 years before moving to Atlanta in 2014.
Kernan elected as lieutenant governor
In 1996, O’Bannon asked Kernan to join him as the candidate for lieutenant governor. The two had gotten to know each other on a trip through Europe in 1990 following the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the time, O’Bannon was Evan Bayh’s lieutenant governor and Kernan was mayor of South Bend.
“Joe carried with him a box from a family in South Bend,” Judy O’Bannon recalled Wednesday, “which contained a new pair of shoes, to give to their relative in need who lived in the former communist Poland. He carried that box in his luggage across several countries, including the Soviet Union, until we got to Poland and could hand deliver the shoes to the relative.”
O’Bannon and Kernan were elected in November 1996 and won again in 2000.
As O’Bannon neared the end of his second term, Kernan insisted he had no interest in running for governor. Democrats had held the office for 16 years, making Kernan’s decision the talk of the town.
His viewpoint changed when O’Bannon died of a stroke in September 2003. Kernan was sworn in as the state’s 48th governor and made history immediately by appointing Kathy Davis as Indiana’s first female lieutenant governor. It set a precedent. Only women have been elected to that position since, though Holcomb was appointed briefly in 2016 before becoming governor.
Davis was a natural choice as Kernan’s second. She had led the $50 million 21st Century Research and Technology Fund, a major O’Bannon-Kernan initiative that connected cities with universities to create high tech jobs. It’s now known as Elevate Ventures.
Davis, who remained close to both Joe and Maggie Kernan after they left office, said Joe Kernan was incredibly confident, clear thinking and funny.
“He gave people confidence in doing what they were setting out to do with him,” she said.
Former Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh worked closely with the O’Bannon administration, which succeeded him as governor, and then with Kernan’s. Bayh said Kernan never took politics too personally.
“Politics has gotten to be so divisive and nasty,” Bayh said. “He was always upbeat and positive and we could use more of that these days. If you’ve been imprisoned for almost a year on behalf of your country, it has a way of putting things in perspective. Maybe some of the pettiness in politics just didn’t matter as much to him because he endured so much worse.”
Daniels wins gubernatorial run
In November 2003, Kernan announced he would run for governor. Though he was the incumbent, Kernan faced an uphill battle. Republican Mitch Daniels was travelling Indiana in a campaign RV with President George W. Bush’s blessing as “My Man Mitch,” pointing out economic hardships and job losses in the state.
Kernan made up ground late in the campaign criticizing Daniels’ plans to privatize, sell or lease state assets. Kernan also began a high profile push to convince the state legislature to add full-day kindergarten for all public schools. The Republican-led Indiana Senate, citing cost concerns, declined to pass the bill.
Daniels won with 53% to Kernan’s 46%. Eight years later, Daniels convinced the General Assembly to fund full-day kindergarten, bringing to a close part of Kernan’s legacy.
“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. “In wartime and in peace, he embodied patriotism and the goodwill toward all we associate with the term ‘Hoosier.'”
Daniels commissions the Kernan-Shepard report
While Kernan lost the 2004 election to Daniels, the two later became political allies.
In 2007, Daniels asked Kernan and Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard to chair a bipartisan commission to examine local government reform.
Daniels told IndyStar he and Kernan had both campaigned on updating Indiana’s antiquated government structure. Daniels said he knew reforming government would take a bipartisan approach and so he asked Kernan for help.
“I couldn’t think of a more well respected figure,” Daniels said Wednesday, “and he agreed willingly.”
The two delivered the Kernan-Shepard report, which shook the political landscape with a particularly scathing condemnation of township government.
Daniels tried to muscle the plan through the state legislature, but received fierce blow back from local elected officials. The legislature never did eliminate the state’s 1,008 townships. Over time, the majority of township assessors were eliminated, and county assessors began managing all property assessments.
Daniels said his administration did implement many other changes recommended in the report, including preventing certain local government employees from running for office, anti-nepotism measures, moving school board elections from May to November, consolidating library districts and funding child welfare at the state rather than the local level.
Daniels, who know heads Purdue University, remains hopeful the legislature ultimately will eliminate the townships.
“Many of us believe that it’s an evergreen document,” Daniels said of the Kernan-Shepard report, “and the reforms that have not been enacted I believe should still be implemented. Joe Kernan’s work and service to Indiana may continue even after his passing.”
Kernan retires from politics
Aside from his stint on the local government commission, Kernan largely retired from politics.
He went back to South Bend after leaving office, and taught as an adjunct professor at Notre Dame, which had given him an honorary doctorate degree while he was lieutenant governor.
John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, said Kernan was always a personal supporter and friend to the university.
“Joe Kernan’s many and noteworthy contributions to Notre Dame, our community, the state and our nation cannot be overstated,” Jenkins said. “In addition to his government service, he was a beloved civic leader who never shied away from challenges.”
In 2005, Kernan, who had played catcher and utility infielder as a student at Notre Dame, convinced 50 members of the community to purchase the minor league South Bend Silver Hawks baseball team. The team, now known as the South Bend Cubs, was close to leaving the city.
“We’re safe at home,” said a visibly giddy Kernan at the announcement of the sale. “Baseball is here to stay in South Bend.”
In 2011, Andrew Berlin of Chicago-based Berlin Packaging took over ownership of the baseball club.
Kernan also became involved in several community and political causes.
In 2009, he donned red high-heel shoes for the YWCA’s Men’s March to End Violence Against Women. The fundraiser, dubbed “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes,” saw Kernan lead a group of men in high heels across town to Coveleski Stadium, where they made their way around the bases.
“I’m like 5-11 now,” he quipped at the finish. “It feels pretty good.”
In 2017, South Bend renamed Viewing Park — on Northside Boulevard between Howard Park and the Farmer’s Market — as Gov. Joe Kernan Park. It was a spot where South Bend residents often saw Kernan, an avid kayaker, out on the St. Joseph River.
No public services
Kernan is survived by his wife, Maggie, and seven siblings who live in the state of Maine and the Washington, DC area.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there will be no public services.
Arrangements are being made by Welsheimer’s Funeral Home in South Bend. Kernan has expressed a preference for Welsheimer’s because the funeral home sponsored his Little League team in 1958 when he was 12 years old.
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 574-631-5150, or by mail: University of Notre Dame, Department of Development, 1100 Grace Hall, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556.
Cory Havens and Joseph Dits of the South Bend Tribune contributed to this story.
Call IndyStar reporter Justin L. Mack at 317-444-6138. Follow him on Twitter: @justinlmack.
Call IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at 317-444-6036. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.