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Joe Kernan, former student-athlete, mayor and governor, passes away

Joe Kernan ‘68, former Notre Dame baseball student-athlete, Governor of Indiana, Lieutenant Governor of Indiana and Mayor of South Bend (Ind.), passed away this Wednesday, July 29. He was 74 years old.

Kernan was a catcher/infielder for the Irish baseball squad during the 1967 and 1968 seasons under the tutelage of legendary head coach Jake Kline. The South Bend native (St. Joseph’s High School) hit .245 over 159 plate appearances and had 22 RBI during his Irish career.

Kernan received his bachelor’s degree in government from Notre Dame in 1968 and enlisted in the United States Navy following graduation. He flew combat missions over Laos and North Vietnam before his plane was shot down during a mission over North Vietnam in 1972. He spent 11 months as a prisoner of war before being rescued in March of 1973.

“Joe Kernan’s many and noteworthy contributions to Notre Dame, our community, the state and our nation cannot be overstated,” University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. said. “Our prayers are with his wife, Maggie, their family and his many friends. We grieve over his passing while simultaneously recognizing a remarkable life. May he rest in peace.”

Following the Vietnam War, Kernan returned to South Bend and was elected mayor in 1987. It was the first of his three-term stint as mayor before being elected as lieutenant governor in 1996 under Frank O’Bannon. Kernan was reelected in 2000 and ultimately stepped up as governor in 2003 following the sudden passing of O’Bannon. Kernan held the role of state governor until 2005.

“Through his decades of servant leadership and sacrifice,” Indiana governor Eric Holcomb said, “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.”

“In addition to his government service, he was a beloved civic leader who never shied away from challenges,” Jenkins said. “He was always a good friend to Notre Dame, and a friend and support to me personally. We were proud to have him as an alumnus, and as an adjunct faculty member in political science.”

Kernan’s passion for the game of baseball never subsided. After his political career, Kernan returned home to South Bend and led the group that purchased the South Bend Silver Hawks, the class-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, in 2006. The sale prevented the former ownership group from moving the team, keeping a minor league baseball presence in South Bend, a city that Kernan loved.

Kernan was a loyal member of the Monogram Club and in 2012 was presented with the Moose Krause Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes an individual’s exemplary performance in government, commitment to youth and the community and a dedication to the spirit and ideals of Notre Dame. 

Born on April 8, 1946, Kernan was the eldest of Joseph and Marian Kernan’s nine children. He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Maggie Kernan, as well as seven siblings. 

Due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there are no public memorial services planned at this time.