Joe Kernan, Former South Bend Mayor And Indiana Governor, Has Died

Jul 29, 2020

Joe Kernan speaks prior to kickoff at a Notre Dame football game in 2005.
Credit https://www.joekernan.com/photo-downloads?pgid=kd0n4pz8-44a254cf-f98b-4c51-a724-7ea11286ef2a

A representative for Joe Kernan has confirmed that the former South Bend Mayor and Indiana Governor has died.  A spokeswoman says there will be no public services at this time for Kernan due to COVID-19. 

(You can read the release below.) 

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA (July 29,2020) – Earlier today, Joseph E. Kernan, 48th Governor of the State of Indiana passed away following a long illness. He is survived by his wife Maggie, and seven siblings who live in the state of Maine and the Washington, DC area.

Kernan’s distinguished career 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.

 

A graduate of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, 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 Lt. 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 Governor 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 Lt. Governor.

 

Upon retirement from politics in 2005, Kernan moved back to South Bend and convinced fifty 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 by the name of Andrew Berlin was found in 2011. Not only did Berlin agree to keep the team in South Bend, he signed a twenty-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 Governor Eric Holcomb.

 

“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, C.S.C, 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 (574) 631-5150, or by mail: University of Notre Dame, Department of Development, 1100 Grace Hall, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556.

 

 To access Gov. Kernan’s full biography, photos and other materials please click on this link.

 

The President of Notre Dame issued a statement on Kernan's passing. 

 

(You can read his full remarks below.) 

 

Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., president of the University of Notre Dame, issued the following statement on the passing of former Indiana Gov. and South Bend Mayor Joe Kernan, who died today:

 

“Joe Kernan’s many and noteworthy contributions to Notre Dame, our community, the state and our nation cannot be overstated. A student-athlete at the University, he earned a bachelor’s degree in government, then entered the Navy and served as aviator in Vietnam, where he demonstrated uncommon heroism when shot down and held as a 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 this 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.”

Many people are reacting on Twitter to news of Kernan's death, including former South Bend Mayor and former Democratic Presidential Candidate Pete Buttigieg.

 

Credit Screenshot from Twitter

Even the man who defeated Kernan when he ran to try and continue on as Indiana's Governor, had nothing but praise for him.  

 (Read Mitch Daniels' statement below.) 

 WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue University President Mitch Daniels issued this statement Wednesday (July 29) after the passing of former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan. "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. In wartime and in peace, he embodied patriotism and the goodwill toward all we associate with the term "Hoosier." He was a true leader, and we have lost him far too soon. Those among us so ready to bear malice against those with whom they differ and either so ignorant or so ungrateful that they disdain those whose sacrifices gave them the freedom to express their views should pause and consider the life and character of Joe Kernan." — Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. 

South Bend's current mayor issued this statement:

“Governor Joe Kernan forever changed our city as our mayor, governor and as an active community leader,” said South Bend Mayor James Mueller. “He had a bright vision for the future of South Bend, and we carry forward that vision today. A tireless public servant, Joe was a role model of humility, leadership, and a deep commitment to people. I will always cherish my memories of Joe from when he visited my Cub Scout pack many years ago to more recent discussions we had about City government.”

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb directed that flags be flown at half-staff statewide to honor former Governor Kernan from now until sunset on Wednesday, August 5.