BREAKING NEWS : Indiana State Police investigate death of inmate at Wells County Jail in isolated cell Full Story

Ex-Indiana Gov. Kernan, who was a Vietnam POW, dies at 74

Joe Kernan died at a South Bend health care facility, said Mary Downes, who was his governor’s office chief of staff.

Posted: Jul 29, 2020 10:21 AM
Updated: Jul 30, 2020 10:32 AM

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — 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.

FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004, file photo, Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan acknowledges the applause of supporters as he concedes to Republican challenger Mitch Daniels in the race for governor in Indianapolis. Kernan has died at age 74.

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.

“Distinguished isn’t a strong enough word to describe him,” current Gov. Eric Holcomb said in a statement. “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.”

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.”

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.’”

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 111505

Reported Deaths: 3506
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Marion20699758
Lake10217318
Elkhart6368109
St. Joseph604597
Allen5965200
Hamilton4676109
Vanderburgh334129
Hendricks2650122
Monroe240836
Johnson2257122
Tippecanoe221013
Clark211756
Porter205244
Cass19319
Delaware187061
Vigo176622
Madison157775
LaPorte136737
Floyd130361
Howard127563
Kosciusko119017
Bartholomew114957
Warrick114135
Marshall98524
Dubois94918
Boone94446
Hancock90542
Grant88233
Noble88132
Henry76324
Wayne73914
Jackson7349
Morgan69638
Shelby66529
Daviess64127
LaGrange63011
Dearborn62628
Clinton59112
Harrison56024
Putnam5329
Montgomery50521
Lawrence50328
Knox4869
White47914
Gibson4744
Decatur45339
DeKalb45011
Miami4243
Fayette41813
Greene41835
Jasper3822
Steuben3677
Scott35310
Sullivan32912
Jennings30912
Posey3020
Franklin29725
Clay2925
Orange28224
Ripley2788
Carroll27013
Wabash2638
Washington2581
Whitley2526
Starke2517
Wells2472
Adams2443
Jefferson2433
Fulton2352
Huntington2213
Spencer2194
Tipton21722
Perry20913
Randolph2067
Jay1700
Newton17011
Owen1641
Martin1620
Rush1514
Pike1411
Vermillion1260
Fountain1152
Pulaski1141
Blackford1132
Crawford1030
Brown1013
Parke932
Benton880
Union770
Ohio767
Switzerland680
Warren401
Unassigned0225

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 144309

Reported Deaths: 4615
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Franklin25977603
Cuyahoga17092642
Hamilton12756308
Montgomery7501152
Lucas7119357
Butler563299
Summit5096249
Marion306347
Mahoning2991279
Warren291048
Stark2739168
Pickaway263344
Lorain226386
Delaware213520
Fairfield202050
Columbiana191980
Licking185762
Trumbull1848131
Clark172338
Wood170671
Clermont162620
Lake157649
Medina143038
Allen136767
Greene135228
Miami135049
Portage107466
Mercer105317
Tuscarawas91220
Wayne90166
Erie89944
Ross85622
Richland78419
Madison78012
Darke76039
Belmont70727
Geauga70347
Hancock6579
Ashtabula64348
Athens5972
Lawrence59418
Shelby5819
Auglaize5659
Sandusky55420
Putnam54123
Huron5237
Union4932
Ottawa46530
Scioto4646
Seneca43914
Preble42013
Holmes3717
Muskingum3712
Jefferson3184
Henry29712
Champaign2933
Logan2933
Perry2859
Defiance28110
Clinton27813
Knox27815
Brown2752
Hardin25013
Morrow2492
Washington24823
Fulton2341
Jackson2314
Coshocton23011
Fayette2256
Ashland2234
Highland2203
Crawford2186
Wyandot20112
Williams1983
Gallia18012
Meigs1729
Hocking1619
Pike1580
Guernsey1567
Carroll1507
Adams1214
Van Wert1113
Monroe10618
Paulding1010
Harrison611
Morgan470
Vinton453
Noble270
Unassigned00
Fort Wayne
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 74° Lo: 43°
Feels Like: 72°
Angola
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 72° Lo: 45°
Feels Like: 72°
Huntington
Clear
71° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 44°
Feels Like: 71°
Decatur
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 73° Lo: 42°
Feels Like: 72°
Van Wert
Clear
72° wxIcon
Hi: 72° Lo: 41°
Feels Like: 72°
Warming up for Monday
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events