INDIANAPOLIS – Former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan, a Vietnam prisoner of war who entered politics and was thrust into the state’s top office when his predecessor suffered a deadly stroke, died Wednesday at age 74.
Kernan died at a South Bend health care facility, said Mary Downes, who was his governor's office chief of staff. Kernan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease several years ago, but his family kept his condition private until disclosing earlier this month that he had lost the ability to speak and was living in a care facility.
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’s death and served for 16 months before he lost the 2004 election to Republican Mitch Daniels.
“Joe Kernan was a steady hand of leadership at a difficult time for our state," Vice President Mike Pence, a former Indiana governor, said in a statement. “Even though our politics differed, Joe Kernan was always kind, always willing to work together for Hoosiers, and Joe Kernan was my friend."
A gregarious campaigner who was a catcher on the University of Notre Dame’s baseball team, Kernan was widely praised for the smooth transition after the first death of an Indiana governor since 1891.
“This was uncharted territory,” Republican state Sen. James Merritt said to Kernan during a ceremony just days before he left office in early 2005. “This was your legacy — calm leadership in a crisis.”
Current Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, said of Kernan: “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," Holcomb said in a statement.