By Eric Holcomb
His gubernatorial portrait greets me every day with a warm Hoosier smile as I walk into my Statehouse office.
Ever since I took office, the hand-painted canvas has hung on the wall behind my desk as a daily reminder to put first the interests of the people I represent. It’s what Joe Kernan would do.
Now, I, along with our entire state, mourn the loss of a truly selfless statesman.
As a former sailor and history buff, I have long admired Joe Kernan. His story reads like that of a bona fide American hero. Hollywood could use his life as a blockbuster movie script.
Shot down over North Vietnam in May of ‘72, Naval Flight Officer Kernan was taken captive, beaten and held in the infamous Hanoi Hilton until March 27, 1973. Twenty-six missions over hostile enemy territory and spending nearly a year in a North Vietnamese prison earned Kernan the Navy Commendation Medal, two Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Following repatriation, he remained on active duty until December 1974 – but even that wasn’t the end of his public service. You might say he was just getting started.
Kernan dedicated himself to protecting the interests of America overseas and after stints in the private sector, he chose to take another path by giving back to his fellow Hoosiers. First elected as city controller of South Bend in 1980, Kernan went on to serve three terms as mayor of the city, beginning in 1987. At the time of his departure from that post to join the O’Bannon ticket as the lieutenant governor nominee, he was the longest-serving mayor in South Bend’s history.
Press accounts from 2002 describe Kernan’s decision to not seek a gubernatorial turn in the 2004 election as his own. He planned to retire from elected office and head back to South Bend to be with his hometown neighbors.
History had a different idea.
In an unfortunate turn of events, Gov. Frank O’Bannon passed away suddenly, and the reigns of state government then turned to Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan, once again answering the call of duty when he was sworn in as Indiana’s 48th governor on Sept. 13, 2003.
Nearly four decades after first enlisting to serve his country, Gov. Kernan could have rested in retirement after departing the Governor’s Office. Instead, he continued to personify true citizenship. Whether it be volunteering with the American Red Cross or serving on the Kernan-Shepard Commission to increase government efficiency, his continued involvement in bettering his community and future generations served as an inspiration.
Early in my gubernatorial career, Kernan paid a visit to my office – the same office where he once served as Indiana’s chief executive. We instantly connected, sharing our common values and approach to the position, including the priority to stay in touch with everyday Hoosiers so that you never lose sight of how state policies actually affect the lives of our citizens.
Hoosiers will always remember his loving toughness; that he possessed grit unlike any other; that he was an unstoppable positive force for good. A man who would say yes when duty called, no matter if it was the little leagues or the big leagues; in the cockpit of an airplane or the seat of the state.
His lifetime of servant leadership and the challenges Joe Kernan faced with such grace not only revealed his impeccable character but reminded us – energized us – to do better. I know that my life and the lives of all Hoosiers are better because of this great man.
Joe Kernan’s legacy lives on in all of us whom he inspired.
Eric Holcomb is the governor of Indiana.