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.
“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.