John Krull: Joe Kernan’s American life

John Krull

INDIANAPOLIS — Joe Kernan was what America should be.

He treated his fellow citizens, including those with whom he disagreed, with respect and consideration. Wherever he was, he worked to make his community a better place. He never failed to answer a call to duty.

And he did it all with an easy geniality that was disarming. Even those who saw him as a political opponent found it difficult, even impossible, to dislike him.

He did not command respect.

He earned it, from the ground up.

All who mistook Kernan’s near-puckish smile for softness did so at their peril. He was as tough as men come, a guy confident enough in his own grit and resilience that he never felt a need to “prove” it through boasting or swagger.

That much was evident early on.

He walked on to the University of Notre Dame baseball team, then clawed his way into playing by doing whatever was necessary — as a catcher or utility infielder — to help the team.

The Vietnam War raged then. Kernan entered the U.S. Navy and served as a Navy flight officer. He was sent to Vietnam and shot down while flying a reconnaissance mission.

He spent nearly a year as a prisoner of war. He spent much of that time in a North Vietnamese prison nicknamed “The Zoo.” When he was repatriated in 1973, he returned to active duty.

For his service, Kernan received two Purple Hearts, the Navy Commendation Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Once out of the Navy, he began a career, but it became clear that his passion was for service. He was an enthusiastic volunteer, the kind of guy who always sought to brighten the corner where he lived.

Or where his neighbors and friends lived.

He served as South Bend’s comptroller in the early 1980s. He ran for mayor there as a Democrat in 1987 and won.

Kernan loved the work. Late in life, long after he had served in higher offices, he said that being mayor of South Bend was the best job he ever had.

He set about revitalizing the city, which struggled with the same ailments that plagued many other rust belt cities. He had success, in part because his sunny indomitability reassured both townspeople and the business leaders considering locating their companies in South Bend that challenges existed to be met, problems to be solved.

The city embraced him. The last time he ran to be South Bend’s mayor, in 1995, he captured 82% of the vote — a record that still stands.

Kernan’s popularity made him a hot political commodity. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank O’Bannon asked Kernan to be his running mate in 1996. Kernan didn’t want to do it. He liked being mayor.

But duty — to his party, to the state — called.

So, he ran.

O’Bannon and Kernan won. Kernan served as a dutiful and effective lieutenant governor, but he and O’Bannon experienced a rift in O’Bannon’s second term.

Kernan said he wouldn’t run to be O’Bannon’s successor. He planned to go home to South Bend. The announcement created a void in the Democratic Party’s leadership.

Then Frank O’Bannon died, and Joe Kernan became governor.

Kernan named Kathy Davis his lieutenant governor. She was the first woman to hold the office in the state’s history.

Two months later, Kernan announced he would run, after all.

Because, once again, duty called.

The gubernatorial election of 2004 illustrates how harsh the mathematics of politics can be. Kernan and his Republican opponent, Mitch Daniels, were two of the most talented and capable leaders any state could produce.

Only one, though, could win.

Daniels captured the governor’s seat and went on to remodel Indiana along conservative lines of governance.

Kernan returned home to South Bend, where he went back to doing what he’d always done. He served as a volunteer director of the local Red Cross. He worked to keep minor-league baseball in the city. He pitched in wherever he could.

He brightened the corner where he lived.

And where his friends and neighbors lived.

Joe Kernan died early on a July morning after a battle with Alzheimer’s. He was 74.

His epitaph is simple, but laden with honor.

He was a true son of America.

May he rest in peace.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].