Gov. Joe Kernan campaigns in Columbus in 2004. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)
Gov. Joe Kernan campaigns in Columbus in 2004. (HPI Photo by Brian A. Howey)

SOUTH BEND - Joe Kernan always celebrated his “Shoot Down Day.” Every May 7.

On May 7, 1972, his Navy plane was shot down while on a reconnaissance flight over North Vietnam. Kernan ejected before the plane crashed. He survived without critical injury, though unconscious on the way down. He was captured, beaten and then held as a prisoner of war for 11 months, much of this in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison.

Why celebrate the anniversary of when he was shot down rather than the anniversary of when he was freed?

Kernan once told me it was because the date of the day when freedom was taken away reminded him of the freedom he could now enjoy. Freedom on that date to do exactly what he wanted. He always celebrated with pizza and cold beer at Rocco’s, free from enduring myriad meals of only hated pumpkin soup in Vietnam. “I never forget the 7th of May,” he said. “As often as not I forget about the anniversary of the day I came home.”

With Kernan’s death, his accomplishments after he came home are recalled by governmental leaders from around the state and also by folks around South Bend who knew him personally. He was elected three times as mayor, the governmental job he said he enjoyed the most. He was elected twice as lieutenant governor and became governor with the death of Gov. Frank O’Bannon.

Unlike many politicians, he had no all-consuming desire for elective office. He had to be talked into running for mayor. He said he wouldn’t run for governor when O’Bannon’s second term was to end in 2004. He was displeased with some aspects of Hoosier politics. Even after O’Bannon’s death in 2003 thrust him into the governor’s office, Kernan still initially declined candidacy. He was talked into running, though a late start left him trailing Mitch Daniels, who won.

Politically, Kernan was convivial, not contentious. He accepted appointments from Daniels when the Republican governor needed a bipartisan effort. In presiding over the Senate as lieutenant governor, he won praise from Republicans for his good humor and fairness.

After state government, Kernan was involved in civic efforts in South Bend. Most important was successfully forming a group to buy the South Bend Silver Hawks to keep the team from being sold to buyers who would move the franchise elsewhere. The local buyers took a financial loss, but saved the team for eventual purchase by Andrew Berlin, an entrepreneur who made the South Bend Cubs one of the top minor league teams in the nation, a local treasure, and brought economic development all around the stadium.

While former Mayor Pete Buttigieg attracted positive national attention to South Bend as a city now with a “can do” attitude, replacing long lingering pessimism from Studebaker demise, impressive developments would have been impossible if prior mayors had just let the Rust Belt city rust away.

Former Mayor Roger Parent battled against naysayers again and again to get a baseball stadium built. And Kernan than kept a team here.

As mayor, Kernan sought to keep the city from surrendering to “can’t do” critics. Many efforts worked. One is cited as failure _ building a site for the College Football Hall of Fame.

Hall sponsors moved it to Atlanta after poor attendance in South Bend. The site here remains vacant. Still, it was an effort to encourage development in a lackluster downtown. It did lead to the South Bend Chocolate Cafe and other developments that were there as a base for the recent downtown boom.

Kernan didn’t brag about achievements. Nor did he wail about any opposition unfairness or any setbacks.

What happened when his plane went down on that 7th of May, his “Shoot Down Day,” relegated some of the later ups and downs to lesser significance.    
Colwell has covered Indiana politics over five decades for the South Bend Tribune.