Former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan was honored as a patriot and leader during a Statehouse ceremony Friday unveiling a memorial bust of him more than two years after his death.
More than 200 family members and friends joined in the celebration that opened with bagpipe music on St. Patrick’s Day, noting Kernan’s Irish heritage in what marked a public memorial for him as no such services were held following his August 2020 death because of COVID-19 restrictions.
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 suffered a deadly stroke and served for 16 months before he lost the 2004 election to Republican Mitch Daniels.
Kernan died at age 74 after several years of declining health because of Alzheimer’s disease.
Friday’s ceremony highlighted Kernan’s gregarious personality, humor and dedication to public service punctuated by the 11 months he spent as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war after a reconnaissance plane he was in was shot down in 1972.
Before the bronze bust was unveiled, Terry Kernan teased Indianapolis sculptor Ryan Feeney that his mostly bald older brother might not be pleased.
“If Joe had anything to do with it, he’d want more hair. Just to let you know,” Terry Kernan joked. “Hopefully it can be added later.”
Kernan grew up in South Bend as the oldest of nine siblings — most of whom attended Friday’s ceremony — and enlisted in the Navy following his 1968 graduation and time on the baseball team at the University of Notre Dame. After his return from Vietnam, he married his wife, Maggie, and worked for local businesses before entering politics.
After leaving the governor’s office, Kernan returned to South Bend and was involved in numerous civic activities, including leading a group of investors that owned the city’s minor league baseball team for about five years before selling it in 2011.
Kathy Davis, whom Kernan appointed as Indiana’s first female lieutenant governor, said Kernan had many longtime friends in his “ball clubs” spanning from his childhood at Holy Cross grade school in South Bend to his time as governor.
The bronze bust, paid for from donations raised by the Indianapolis Athletic Club Foundation, will be a permanent reminder in the Statehouse of Kernan’s influence, Davis said.
“From now on, we’re going to be able to visit Joe Kernan’s invincible spirit and introduce it to others,” Davis said.
Current Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb has Kernan’s official portrait displayed in his personal office, along with that of Gov. Edgar Whitcomb, who escaped from a Japanese prisoner camp by swimming overnight during World War II and died in 2016. Portraits of all other recent governors are hanging in the office lobby.
Holcomb said Kernan never made mention of noticing his portrait’s placement while visiting the office and insisted upon being called “Joe.” Holcomb said Kernan “could connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime.”
“You could drop him into any audience and he will do this, he’d find it,” Holcomb said. “He had this uncommon, optimistic ability to connect people and experiences, stories.”
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