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Former Governor, Vietnam POW Kernan Dies at 74

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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, according to 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 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.

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“Distinguished isn’t a strong enough word to describe him,” current Gov. Eric Holcomb said in a statement.

“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.”

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.”

Kernan enlisted in the Navy following his 1968 Notre Dame graduation and flew as a navigator on combat missions over Laos and North Vietnam.

His reconnaissance plane was shot down during a mission over North Vietnam on May 7, 1972. He ejected and was captured, beginning an 11-month ordeal as a prisoner of war that ended when he was flown out of Hanoi on March 27, 1973.

The worst day of captivity came early on, he said, when he talked with another POW.

“He told me that our escort had lost us and that we were presumed dead,” Kernan said in a 2002 interview.

“My family thought I was dead, and if the Navy thought I was dead, the thing that goes through your mind is that there’s no reason for these guys to keep me alive.”

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For decades, Kernan marked every May 7 by playing golf, eating a pizza and drinking some beer.

“I think it’s because if there hadn’t have been a May 7th, there never would have been a March 27th,” Kernan said. “It was the day my life changed.”

Kernan became the first Indiana governor in 48 years to spare the life of a death row inmate when he stopped an execution just days before it was scheduled to occur in 2004.

Kernan said he decided it would be unfair to execute Darnell Williams for the 1986 murders of a Gary couple when a mentally disabled accomplice got a life sentence. Williams’ sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole.

Kernan had decided against a 2004 run for governor the year before O’Bannon’s death. He changed his mind two months after taking over the state’s top office, declaring “I don’t want to watch this from the sidelines.”

Kernan grew up in the northern Indiana city of South Bend as the oldest of nine siblings. After his return from Vietnam, he married his wife, Maggie, and worked for local businesses before becoming city controller and then winning his first of three mayoral elections in 1987. The couple had no children.

No public funeral services will be held at this time, Downes said.

After leaving the governor’s office, Kernan led a group of investors who owned South Bend’s minor league baseball team for about five years before selling it in 2011.

Kernan often said he didn’t have many bad days after his time as a POW. Maggie Kernan said she often saw that perspective.

“Because of his personality and optimistic outlook, he has been able to take it and make something out of it that is positive,” she said.

“He will talk about doing something tough and difficult and say, ‘What are they going to do, send me to jail? I’ve already been there.’”

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