By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Joe Kernan’s passing on Wednesday at age 74 was as sad as the Notre Dame Magazine story earlier this month revealing that Indiana’s last Democratic governor was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, could no longer speak, and was living away from his wife in a long term care facility.

Anyone who knew Gov. Kernan found him to be brutally honest, a pugilisitic former Notre Dame catcher, and a decent euchre player. I found that out late one hot August night on the French Lick Springs Resort’s veranda.

I once referred to Kernan as a “Sox fan,” due to the fact that the now South Bend Cubs (which he bought to keep in River City) were once known as the South Bend White Sox. Kernan called me up and left me a message: “Brian, you can call me a lot of things, but don’t you ever call me a Sox fan.”

He was also the last remnant of the Democratic dynasty that began under Evan Bayh in 1988 and continued under Gov. Frank O’Bannon and, finally, Kernan. His last campaign came under tormented conditions.

HPI noted in the Nov. 4, 2004, edition: “His was the lost opportunity for Indiana Democrats. He was the war hero in the time of war. He governed as a compassionate healer and the instigator of new ideas that included the historic 2002 tax restructuring, the Energize Indiana plan, and reforms that would have reshaped Indiana government. He broke the mold when he made Kathy Davis the first female lieutenant governor candidate. What Kernan had in substance, he lost in time and appearance.”

There were actually two Kernan gubernatorial campaigns. On the second one, he explained in 2004, “This has been one of those periods in my life where I really didn’t have a chance to catch my breath going back to last September. So on reflection I will look back on this ...,” Kernan said before stopping to gather his composure and going on. “As the oldest of nine from a family where we didn’t on many days have two nickels to rub together, as someone who is very fortunate to be standing here at all today, to look back on nine years serving as mayor, seven as lieutenant governor; and now a year as governor of Indiana ... I’m a very, very lucky guy.”

That was in reference to his stunning December 2002 decision to opt out of the 2004 race after Gov. O’Bannon had selected Peter Manous as Indiana Democratic chairman. It was a decision Kernan believed he should have made. He simply decided he had had enough of Indianapolis and was ready to go back to the city he loved, South Bend, where he served three terms as mayor, winning elections with 80% of the vote. It was a city he returned to after he spent years in a North Vietnamese prison camp after the Navy pilot had been shot down.

Gov. O’Bannon’s death in September 2003 brought Kernan back into the race. I was with eventual Republican nominee Mitch Daniels at Don & Donna’s Cafe in downtown Franklin when the news broke. “We came to the conclusion that in the next year, we will be able to get a great start to achieve our goals,” Kernan said on TV over Daniels’ shoulder. “But there wasn’t enough time to get the job done and I don’t want to sit on the sidelines.”

The governor presented a “vision of every child will be healthy and have a world class education and every Hoosier will have the opportunity to earn a good living.” He pledged to take care of “senior citizens” and those with disabilities and said that “Hoosiers will be safe from threats both inside and outside of Indiana.”

Daniels told the Franklin crowd that he welcomed Kernan’s entry. “No one can predict the ultimate political effect, but from a citizen’s standpoint, this is absolutely for the best,” he said. “It makes the questions before us completely plain. Do we have the kind of economic opportunity we want for our kids and for the least fortunate among us, or should we aim higher? As taxpayers, are we satisfied with the quality and performance of state government, or should we expect more? After 16 years of one-party rule by career politicians do we want to start fresh, or not?”

Kernan raised $15 million, but never got back on track, failed to define Mitch Daniels, and ran out of TV ad money during the final week, becoming the first incumbent governor to lose.

Daniels’ victory over Kernan began what is now a duplicate 16-year Republican gubernatorial run, almost certainly to be extended to 20 years – matching the Edgar Whitcomb, Doc Bowen and Bob Orr streak of the 1970s and 80s – should Gov. Eric Holcomb defeat Woody Myers in November.

Kernan’s defeat didn’t end his public service. Gov. Daniels called him to head the Kernan-Shepard Commission on Indiana government reform.

Daniels reacted to Kernan’s death, saying, “Joe Kernan was at different times my ally, opponent, and advisor, but always a friend to me, and as far as I could tell to everyone he met. In wartime and in peace, he embodied patriotism and the goodwill toward all we associate with the term ‘Hoosier.’ He was a true leader, and we have lost him far too soon. Those among us so ready to bear malice against those with whom they differ and either so ignorant or so ungrateful that they disdain those whose sacrifices gave them the freedom to express their views should pause and consider the life and character of Joe Kernan.”

Holcomb paid tribute, saying, “Indiana mourns the loss of Joe Kernan, a bona fide American hero, decorated Navy officer, and truly selfless statesman who always placed the interests of his fellow Hoosiers first. Distinguished isn’t a strong enough word to describe him. 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. Undeterred after being shot down and tortured in Vietnam, he returned and led his beloved city of South Bend as mayor for three terms, and our state as our 47th lieutenant governor. When duty called him to step into a role he didn’t seek, he served as our 48th governor.

“Through his decades of servant leadership and sacrifice, Joe Kernan modeled all the best of what it means to be a Hoosier and his legacy will continue to live on in each of us whom he inspired,” Holcomb concluded.

In addition to his wife Maggie, Kernan is survived by seven siblings. Arrangements are being made by Welsheimer’s Funeral Home in South Bend. The South Bend Tribune reported that Kernan had expressed a preference for Welsheimer’s because the funeral home sponsored his Little League team in 1958 when he was 12 years old. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, there will be no public services.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Veterans Fund at the University of Notre Dame, at giving.nd.edu; by phone (574) 631-5150; or by mail, at University of Notre Dame, Department of Development, 1100 Grace Hall, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556.