Joseph Kernan, Vietnam P.O.W. and Indiana Governor, Dies at 74

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This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

Joseph Kernan, a naval aviator who served nearly a year as a prisoner of war after he was shot down over North Vietnam in 1972, then returned to Indiana to serve as a popular mayor, lieutenant governor and governor, died on Wednesday in South Bend, Ind. He was 74.

He had been ill with Alzheimer’s disease for several years, but the immediate cause of death, in an assisted care facility, was complications of the novel coronavirus, his wife, Maggie Kernan, said.

The son of a World War II naval aviator, Mr. Kernan joined the Navy in 1969 after graduating the year before with a bachelor’s degree in government from the University of Notre Dame.

After training as a flight officer and in reconnaissance, he was deployed to Southeast Asia aboard the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in February 1972. On May 7, of that year, his RA-5C Vigilante, a supersonic attack spy plane on a mission to record damage from an earlier bombing, was downed by enemy antiaircraft fire.

About a month later, the Navy informed Lieutenant Kernan’s family that a search and rescue mission had found no evidence of a crash, but that other sources had reported that two parachutes had descended into a populated area of Thanh Hoa.

Lieutenant Kernan and his co-pilot, Cmdr. Ron Polfer, had indeed parachuted to safety but had been taken prisoner. He was held for 11 months, including a term at the notorious Hoa Lo Prison, known to captured Americans as the Hanoi Hilton.

When the United States withdrew from the fighting in 1973, and prisoners were released, he continued on active duty with the Navy until December 1974.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Purple Hearts and the Navy Commendation Medal.

Mr. Kernan was employed by Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, then returned to Indiana where he worked for the South Bend Community Schools and several area corporations. In 1980, he was appointed city comptroller.

In 1987, Mr. Kernan, a Democrat, was elected mayor of South Bend, with economic development near the top of his agenda. When he was elected to his third four-year term, he won a record 82 percent of the vote and became the city’s longest-serving mayor at the time.

The following year, with Gov. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, ineligible to seek re-election because of term limits, Frank O’Bannon named Mr. Kernan as his running mate for lieutenant governor on the Democratic ticket. Both were elected. (Mr. O’Bannon had been lieutenant governor under Governor Bayh.)

As lieutenant governor, Mr. Kernan focused on tax reform, job creation and issues of special concern to veterans and farmers.

Re-elected in 2000, he assumed the governor’s job in September 2003 when Mr. O’Bannon died at 73 after having a stroke. Mr. Kernan then named Kathy Davis, a state and Indianapolis official, as lieutenant governor, making her the first woman to hold that job. He made strides in improving kindergarten and community college education.

He sought a full term in 2004 but lost to the Republican, Mitch Daniels, and returned to private life. He taught political science at Notre Dame and was president and managing investor of the South Bend Silver Hawks, then a farm club of the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was instrumental in keeping the club, now known as the South Bend Cubs, in town.

In the 2011 South Bend mayoral election, Mr. Kernan endorsed Pete Buttigieg, who went on to serve eight years in City Hall before running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

Joseph Eugene Kernan III, the oldest of nine children, was born on April 8, 1946, in Chicago. After World War II, his father sold auto and restaurant supplies, then, in 1965, helped kick off Upward Bound, a federally funded program to help underserved high school students prepare for college. Mr. Kernan’s mother, Marian (Powers) Kernan, worked as a communications representative, including for the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, where she handled the Pentagon account.

The family moved to South Bend when Joe was 10. When he went to college, he was able to afford tuition by enrolling in the Reserve Officers Training Corps.

In addition to his wife, Maggie (McCullough) Kernan, a senior vice president of 1st Source Bank, whom he married in 1974, he is survived by his brother, Terry; and his sisters Maureen, Barbara, Madeline, Kelly, Jenny and Susan. Another sister, Mary Pat, died three years ago.


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