Former Indiana governor, South Bend mayor Joe Kernan dead at age 74

In addition to the newspaper and media obituaries celebrating Joe Kernan’s exceptional life, memories have come from the friends Joe made when he was with us as a Notre Dame student. If you have an addition, pile on. You can send your memory to or go ahead and post on the blog. There is no expiration date for appreciating Joe Kernan.

We knew Joe as a man who enjoyed a party, of course. Here he is at a class reunion party, Coveleski Stadium clubhouse, as he gives Kathy Malone Beeler, SMC 69, a whirl.

by WSBT 22Wednesday, July 29th 2020

Joseph E. Kernan, 48th governor of the state of Indiana and former South Bend mayor, passed away following a long illness.

Kernan served in the U. S. Navy during the Vietnam War. He was a POW for nearly 11 months in 1972 and received many awards for his military service.

The Democrat won three elections as South Bend’s mayor before being elected lieutenant governor with Gov. Frank O’Bannon in 1996. He took office as governor in 2003 after O’Bannon died from a stroke.

Kernan, 74, was diagnosed with dementia several years ago. He had lost the ability to speak due to Alzheimer’s disease and was living in a care facility.

Kernan’s former Chief of Staff Mary Downes says there will be no public service at this time due to the coronavirus pandemic

Here is the full statement from Downes:

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA (July 29,2020) – Earlier today, Joseph E. Kernan, 48th Governor of the State of Indiana passed away following a long illness. He is survived by his wife Maggie, and seven siblings who live in the state of Maine and the Washington, DC area.

Kernan’s distinguished career began as a United States Navy Lieutenant. He and his co-pilot were shot down while on a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam in 1972. He spent 11 months as a POW in Hanoi, including at the infamous ‘Hanoi Hilton’ prison.

A graduate of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, Kernan returned home in 1974 to begin a career in business. In 1980, South Bend Mayor, Roger Parent asked him to serve as the City Controller in his administration.

Seven years later in 1987, he was elected to his first of three consecutive terms as mayor of the City of South Bend. In his third election as mayor, he received over 82% of the vote – still the widest margin of victory in the City of South Bend history.

In 1996, Frank O’Bannon, who was running for Governor of Indiana, asked Kernan to join him as the candidate for Lt. Governor. O’Bannon and Kernan were elected in November of that year. The team of O’Bannon and Kernan won reelection four years later in 2000.

When Governor O’Bannon died unexpectedly of a stroke in 2003, Kernan was sworn in as the state’s 48th Governor. Kernan made history immediately by appointing Kathy Davis as Indiana’s first female Lt. Governor.

Upon retirement from politics in 2005, Kernan moved back to South Bend and convinced fifty other members of the community to purchase the minor league South Bend Silver Hawks baseball team. At the time, the team was precariously close to leaving the city.

Kernan and his investors were able to keep the team in South Bend until a new owner by the name of Andrew Berlin was found in 2011. Not only did Berlin agree to keep the team in South Bend, he signed a twenty-year lease for the stadium at the same time.

Kernan continued to work as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Notre Dame, and through his own consulting firm until his death earlier today.

“Indiana mourns the loss of Joe Kernan, a bone fide American hero, decorated Navy officer, and truly selfless statesman who always placed the interests of his fellow Hoosiers first,” said Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb.

“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.

Janet and I ask Hoosiers across our state to join us in lifting up in prayer Mrs. Kernan, their incredible family, and all whose lives he touched.”

Kernan passed away at 5:30 a.m. this morning after a prolonged illness. Arrangements are being made by Welsheimer’s Funeral Home in South Bend. Kernan, always a loyal friend, had expressed a preference for Welsheimer’s because the funeral home sponsored his little league team in 1958 when he was 12 years old.

“Joe Kernan’s many and noteworthy contributions to Notre Dame, our community, the state and our nation cannot be overstated,” said John I. Jenkins, C.S.C, President of the University of Notre Dame. “A student-athlete at the University, he earned a bachelor’s degree in government, then entered the Navy and served as a decorated aviator in Vietnam, where he demonstrated uncommon heroism when shot down and held prisoner of war for 11 months.

“As a three-term mayor of South Bend, he set the city on an upward trajectory that continues to this day. He likewise served our state with distinction, first as lieutenant governor and then, upon the sudden passing of Gov. Frank O’Bannon, stepping up as governor.

“In addition to his government service, he was a beloved civic leader who never shied away from challenges. 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.

“In presenting Joe with an honorary degree in 1998, the University praised him as ‘an accomplished public servant who played a pivotal role in strengthening the University’s town-gown relations.’ He went on to deliver a superb commencement address to the graduating class.

“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.”

Memorial contributions may be made to the Veterans Fund at the University of Notre Dame. Please direct your gift to support scholarships and fellowships for military-connected students to, by phone (574) 631-5150, or by mail: University of Notre Dame, Department of Development, 1100 Grace Hall, Notre Dame, Indiana 46556.

Pete Buttigieg@PeteButtigieg
There will not be another like Joe Kernan. South Bend will always be proud of his heroism in uniform and his leadership as our mayor and Governor. And his friends will always remember his exuberant joy, his compassion for the vulnerable, his ready smile, and his inimitable laugh.

7:52 AM · Jul 29, 2020

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Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb’s office issued the following statement:

INDIANAPOLIS — Governor Eric J. Holcomb offered the following after the passing of former Gov. Joe Kernan.

“Indiana mourns the loss of Joe Kernan, a bone 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.

Janet and I ask Hoosiers across our state to join us in lifting up in prayer Mrs. Kernan, their incredible family, and all whose lives he touched.”


From: Joe Kernan <>
Subject: Class of ’68 Saturday Alternative Dinner
To: “Tom Gibbs” <>
Cc: “Kari Orpurt” <>
Date: Thursday, May 1, 2008, 4:47 PM

Gibber – Following up on our conversation the ’68 Saturday dinner will be at Coveleski Stadium in downtown South Bend. The Upper Deck will be the location in the ballpark.  Plenty of parking.  Cocktails begin at 6:30, with dinner to follow whenever we feel like it.  Appetizers, buffet, dessert, beer, wine and gratuity included in $35 per head.  If you want hard stuff there will be a cash bar.  Our President for Life has agreed to lead the “Ruggers Run the Bases” event commencing at 8:00, or whenever four or more ’68ers demand it.  Please have our distinguished and responsible classmates respond to Kari Orpurt, Upper Deck, 501 W. South St., South Bend, IN 46601 with a check for themselves and guests; or by email to the above address; or call her at 574-235-9985.  Being somewhat familiar with the members of the class, I understand that getting an early and accurate head count will be impossible, but appreciate the effort.  Respectfully submitted – Joe

Mike Brennan, 1969, started a good string when he wrote to Bryan Dunigan and attached a photo:       ” I am sending a picture of the Sorin Hall Championship Interhall Football Team, 1967. You can see it has some of the greats of “68, Joe being one of them. You can do with it as you please, it is a terrific memory for me of what Notre Dame means to all of us. I will send a copy to Maggie with my condolences. God Bless, be safe and thank you for keeping so many of us appraised of our friends.” But who is who? Read on for the answer from Tom Durkin.

Bryan Dunigan said: “I can find Joey on the railing. Is that also the Baby Earl in the front row and Wheels Kenealy in upper left corner? Is this team enshrined in Canton yet?”

And Tom Durkin’s answer: “Indeed it is both wheels and the Baby. 

“Bill Bingle the second from left in front row, and I am behind him with the towel around my neck.  Skip Strzelecki, Jay Jordan and Dick Carrigan in the back row. 

“An incredible team.  The victory party in the basement of Sorin after we won the Championship was one for the ages—if my memory serves me Gibbs has an article about the game and party that made the Observer.  One of the top 10 days of my life. (Don’t ask me about the other nine.)  Seems like it was only yesterday.”

Jim Hutchinson wrote:

“He hosted a party at his house with Dave Martin when my son started at ND in 1993.  It was a nice way for the freshmen to get to know a few other kids before orientation.  Joe was a gracious host – he was mayor at the time
One kind of funny story from Freshmen year PE class.  At the end of our soccer session it came time to pick an “all star team”  Somehow our captain picked me over Joe.  Joe was a great athlete and, let me put it this way, I was not.  The looks on everyone’s faces were beyond shock, as they should have been.  I did not know Joe but looked at him expecting a “You’ve got to be kidding me, scowl”.  Instead I got the classic Joe Kernan smile that I never forgot.
I realize that this is a small and insignificant story in the scheme of things but it has always stuck with me.

“When you look at his life, everyone of us looks small but he would never make anyone feel that way.”

A Tom Figel addendum to Jim’s memory:

One of the times Joe and a group of his classmates were winding up at Sunny Italy restaurant, Joe didn’t just say good-bye to the owner Sis. Addressing everyone by name – any age, any station – Joe went into the kitchen and not just said hello but checked on family with the many people at work. Joe was ex-Governor then and occupied with, among other things, the Silver Hawks and a string of charities.

Another time, he spoke at a luncheon in Chicago. In those remarks, he talked about his Chicago history: during the Depression, Joe’s grandfather was in need of work. Then, a friend lost her husband, just at the time the man was about to begin work for a City crew. Immediately, Joe’s grandfather and the widow concocted a scheme: Joe’s grandfather would report to work but in the guise of the man who had passed away. What Joe’s grandfather made would go in part to the other family. Time went on. All of a sudden, the supervisor came along, a sad look on his face. “What’s the matter?” Mr. Kernan asked. He heard in answer: “This is terrible. I have to let you go. Some guy with a City Hall connection, someone named Kernan, is being given the job you have.”

Paul Zalensky wrote:

“I am truly saddened at the loss of Joe. As a freshman at Stanford Hall, Joe would dare passers to get a ball past him on the grass field. In sophomore year, at Howard Hall, Joe asked me to help him with Economics, saying “I need to figure this stuff out; can you be my special tutor?” And who can forget his kamakazi style playing for the Irish on special teams, where he would throw his body in the air to stop a kickoff return? We have lost a true warrior.”

God help anyone who tries to remove this bust of Joe from the South Bend Century Center.

Neil Rogers wrote:

” I remember sometime in the summer of 2008 my son Conor and I were in South Bend.Conor was visiting a young lady ND lady classmate and we were at the minor league ballpark and Joe tracked us down in right field. As the head of the ball club he was extremely busy, but he went.out of his way to make sure the Rogers were treated as Silverhawk royalty. Joe and I were not well acquainted but that mattered little. We were treated as part of a big family. All were blessed to know Joe.”

Mike Browning wrote:

“Gregarious, feisty, a fighter, always to the point, no subtlety, incredibly loyal, a man for all people….. on and on. 

He left us some time ago and we tried hard to pretend that he was with us.  But last night we grieved and Tom McKenna and I reminisced with a beer and we were reminded of on Mick Jagger song. “Let’s drink to the hard working people, let’s drink to the lowly of birth, Raise your glass to the good and the evil, Let’s drink to the salt of the earth… “

Tom Weyer wrote:

“I must commend our South Bend crew who took so much time taking Joe out for lunch , movies appointments and other events. Maggie sure needed an occasional break. Tom Cuggino, Pat Barth, Gene Cavanaugh, Skip Strezliki, Dr Freddie Ferlic, Chris Murphy…and I’m sure others, were a super CareTeam…..They had something going on every week . Great 68” at its finest…. As I said at the Reunion…we didn’t need Fraternities…..Notre Dame gave us all the brothers we would ever need.”

Video of Indiana lowering flag at news of Joe’s death:

(received by Bryan Dunigan from Claire Toomey)

Dave Martin wrote:

“Indeed it is difficult to see one of our classmates pass on.  However, in Joey’s situation, of course it’s our loss, but it may truly be a blessing in disguise as the Alzheimer’s was enough of a burden, but with other complications it was difficult for Joe and many of his family and friends.  But as we know, Joe built and nurtured many friends  over a lifetime of good cheer, kindness, and truly caring for all he met, so that the prayers from all those friends and family hopefully made his last days a blessing of love for all who cared for him and about him.   May Joe rest in the love of our Lord in heavenly peace!

“Here’s but a little story of Joe’s interaction with me.  It is but a snippet of my recollection and experience with a marvelous guy and a HUGE HUMAN BEING.  It was very hard not to love the guy, but I was tested at least once.   It was on the golf course, and I recall Joey was a reasonably crumby player, but a player that would never give up or even show the slightest possibility of quitting (which word was simply not in his vocabulary).  Once upon a time, in his home territory we had a golf match at the South Bend Country Club (or I like to think it was there, and if it was there we were only there because Joey had friends in high places).    

“As it was, we were betting often and excessively, along the lines of a $2 Nassau.  As we played we continued the banter back and forth for the entire round.  Of course, one of Joes major abilities was to talk, and when on the golf course he’d normally be talking at the wrong time (in my backswing more often than not).  And as the round progressed and his putter, not to mention his other clubs, started to really let him down around the 15th hole, he started to press our bet.  I recall he won the 16th hole but I took back the 17th and we were down to the final link…..#18.    I drove where I was supposed to be, in the fairway (a place normally not with which I was very familiar).  Joey drove to the right somewhere in the rough……or at least he told me that’s where his ball came to rest.  We both hit our second shots and mine was well placed and handsomely played (even if I do say so myself), while Joey was swatting flies, and his ball which barely rolled into an unfamiliar place for him that day…..the fairway.  My third shot was on the green and Joey’s was way short.  He had to press and indeed the pressure must have gotten to him as he duffed his next shot to with about 100 yards of the green.  Bottom line, due to some inordinately poor shots by Hizzoner, he ended up loosing the match and the BIG MONEY (maybe around $7 or $8 bucks).  But as the competitor Joey was, he hated losing….especially to a rank amateur like me.    So it is my contention that Joey hatched a plan between the 18th green and the bar that targeted my winnings, or at least hatched a plan to avoid paying his debt to me, at least for that day. 

“His plan, drink enough beer (back in those days) and “over-serve” me so that I’d forget about the debt the future governor of Indiana owed to yours truly.  Well, I’m sad to say I didn’t get him to pay up on his debt, but I think that my consumption was sufficient to qualify for a win in that day’s betting circle.  Joey was a competitor to the end because it took at least two major malaises to bring the man down……but we know down did not happen for Joe.   He is high above and cheering us all on and is rooting for each and every one of us.

“Today, I will raise a glass in honor of a truly good man.  God bless you Joe and may you continue to bless us with your friendship and the love that you brought to all our lives! “

A Tom Figel addendum to Dave’s memory:

John Walsh, Tom Moore and I had come to a Joe Kernan roast put on by a South Bend group with a name like Goose and Duck. His South Bend friends did a good job of roughing Joe up, with some stray shots directed at never-RSVP-on-time Fred Ferlic. Joe held his own when he had his chance to rebut. One of his stories concerned a golf outing when, as Governor, he had a state trooper in attendance. Somebody in the foursome, someone at the event that day, was lining up for a meaningful but lengthy putt. Joe turned to the trooper and said, “If he makes that putt, I want you to shoot him.”

Mike Burgener wrote:

“ya i have great memories of joe kernan at notre dame… i recall joe was a baseball player and i might even had a class or two with joe and his bb coach jake cline….those were the days!!! on one occasion i can remember being back on campus, sometime in the mid to late 70’s as i recall……Joe and i saw each other and my first comment to joe was: “well joe, you got your ass caught!!” we both laughed and he said: “yup, i sure did!!!” joe was an amazing person and i am sad to see him leave this world, but we all know he is in a better place!!! RIP JOE!!!

Pete Farrell wrote:

“Several years back I happened to land a terrific blue chip runner out of Culver Academy. She was one of the best if not the best high school prospect in the country. As nine time Indiana State Champion in cross country and track, Alex Banfich was chosen as the top high school athlete In the Hoosier State. She was to receive her award and recognition at the half time of the Colts game. Having already decided on Princeton as her college choice, she stepped forward to receive her award from the governor who greeted her with “Pete will take good care of you next year.” Her parents told me this story. Thanks Joe.

“Terre Haute, Indiana is to college cross country what Omaha is to baseball. While driving my team through downtown TH, I noticed a store front displaying Headquarters of the Joe Kernan’s Campaign for Governor. Errrrrhhh. I immediately pulled the van over and told the team I‘ll be right back. Entering the room I found two idle young men leaning back in their chairs waiting for business. I asked “Do you guys know who Joe is?” They answered that they had met him once. I felt compelled to unload on them. “I know you’ve read of his accomplishments, his war record and his civic service. I had the privilege of living next door to him in college. He was and is no ordinary or average Joe. No, Joe is quite extraordinary. He’s the good guy who also gets things done. No nerd here, he enjoyed college as much as any body you know. He was the catcher on the baseball team. If you can’t trust the catcher who can you trust. He’s the man this state needs as governor.” I exhorted them to be aggressive in doing his bidding. I think I put some life behind his picture. Not hard to do with a guy like Joe.”

Larry “Monk” Forness wrote:

“I remember when a friend moved back here (South Bend area) in 2008, I was out at a little eatery with Ron Jeziorski. He leans over and tells me that there is Joe Kernan at another table. I had not seen Joe since we graduated. I walk up to Joe’s table and reintroduce myself. But I’m not even done talking when Joe says, “Hey, Monk. Great to see you again. Welcome back, Brother.” I was stunned that he’d not only remember me, but see who I was after all those years, and that I had been in ‘Nam. Joe adds: “I remember that you lived in Stanford freshman year.” Again, I was stunned, and said, “Joe, given that you were shot down and in the Hanoi Hilton, it should you be ME telling ‘Welcome back, Brother’ to YOU.” Which I did.And I also remember all those great evenings at the South Bend ball park and having root beer and good conversation after the game was over.”

Skip Strzelecki wrote:

“Notre Dame as we all know has no fraternities, but what we do have is an even stronger bond, a bond of brothers. One of the great benefits of our beloved university! The “Great 68” is filled with great leaders who have impacted and inspired all of our lives. Sadly we lost one of the greatest of the Great 68 Joe Kernan who served his last run, caught his last pass, made his last putt and is now enjoying his ultimate victory and reward for his life well lived. Joe embodied for all of us one of Father Ted’s favorite quotes, “If you want to fulfill your life, live it for others”. May God Bless Joe and Maggie and may the beautiful Lady on the Dome continue to watch over them and all of our classmates.

Bryan Dunigan sent link to Joe’s commencement address video, 1998:

John O’Connor (at Jim Hutchinson’s urging) wrote:

What a great guy he is. My firm represented a POW who was charged with consorting with the enemy. The partner came into my office one day and said, “You were a classmate of Joe Kernan!” I said, “Yeah?” He said, Joe is the greatest guy I have ever met. Joe was considered a solid loyal officer and he stuck up for the officer charged. And showed how the officer was cleverly getting the Vietcong to treat them better, without being disloyal. Joe’s known  integrity was the centerpiece to the defense.

Mike Crutcher wrote:

(After watching Joe’s commencement address, 1998 class) “Joe’s demeanor and observations very accurately reflect the uniqueness of ND . A wonderful blend of faith , academics , community service and athletics . May ND always strive for excellence in representing our belief in God and service to others as the highest of achievements .”

Rich Rogers wrote:

“I first met joe during our 10th reunion I believe. I and some other 68ers went to his house near Angela for refreshments. He gave us a tour and pointed out his pool table in the living room,bar etc. Over the fireplace he had a painting of a green jungle with a fighter jet with the numbers on it on the way down into the greenery. To the right was a smaller parachute with a small figure. He told me that was him, laughing that when he returned to ND and South Bend he was never going to leave ,ever. He left out the POW aspect modestly.   As a loyal patron of THE VIEW tavern on Jefferson in SB I became friendly with some of the luminaries. One was Jack Dillon who was a chemistry professor at St. Mary’s. Jack had lost his wife to cancer and was left with their young daughter who had survived spina bifida and was permanently confined to a wheelchair for life. He was burdened with serious ongoing medical bills because of his daughter’s conditons. I told him i was a ’68 grad. He lit up and said, “You must know Joe Kernan”. He told me that when Joe heard of his situation, Joe set him up with a position that needed to be filled with the South Bend Dept of Streets. Jack left St. Mary’s and Joe was then his boss as mayor. Joe did this on his own so that Jack and his daughter would have excellent health benefits and their financial burdens would be lifted. It was never about Joe, always others.   Jack called me the day Joe passed. He said, “Today i lost a great boss and a SPECIAL friend”. So did we all! GOD BLESS JOE KERNAN
tom- we sure left ND with much more than a degree. how fortunate we are!”

Jay Schwartz wrote (to Dennis Gallagher):

“Dennis: Your email mentioning Joe Kernan brought this memory. His obit mentioned survivors in D.C.( maybe siblings). Joe had been raised in South Bend but his family moved to D.C. while he was at Notre Dame. He had never been there. So, on one break or another, I told him I knew where he now lived and we drove to D.C. I think a ND friend of mine was driving as neither Joe or I had a car.In any event, we delivered Joe to his family in Northwest D.C. and proceeded on to the wrong side of the tracks ( albeit in a fashionable section).The best part of the obits I’ve read was his insistence to be buried through the funeral home which had sponsored his little league team.

Bob “Rabbit” Noonan wrote:

Tom, soliciting stories about Joe will only be restrained by the storage on your computer.  We all have Kernan stories from our ND days but let me share one from 1988.  

Still in the Army, we were transferring from Hawaii to the Army War College in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1988.  I decided to make a side trip to ND and as we pulled into South Bend, the billboard said: Mayor Joe Kernan.  As this was before the internet and we had spent the last three years in Hawaii, I still thought he was the comptroller.  We pulled into our hotel and I called City Hall just to say hello.  I hadn’t seen him since 1969.  His assistant put him through and it was like we were back in our undergrad days.  Then he said he was busy but would call back and maybe we could go out for dinner.  My wife and kids had already cleaned up and I was in the shower when my wife came into the bathroom and said there was a policeman at our door demanding to come in. I grabbed some shorts and opened the door.  The policeman asked me if I was “the rabbit”.  I said yes and then Joe appeared down the hallway, laughing his butt off.  He demanded we all go to Corby’s for pizza and so we did.  We were going to leave the next day but he asked us to stay because he was hosting a veteran’s ceremony at the ballpark and wanted me to come. I said sure and the next morning we went to the ceremony.  After a few remarks, Joe then announced that the speaker would be LTC Bob Noonan, a Vietnam Vet still on Active Duty.  He gave me that mischievous look and handed me the microphone.  I winged it but Joe couldn’t get the smile off his face.  He then invited my family to a social event at his house that afternoon.  We went and I was impressed that Joe was spending time talking to our 11 year old son about moving and finding new friends.  As we left he told my son to wait and then ran back into his house and brought out a football autographed by Lou Holtz and the entire coaching staff; an incredibly generous gesture.  

He will be missed.

On 40th anniversary of his flight out of Vietnam, Joe Kernan counted his blessings

Joe Kernan, front row, second from left, is shown in this undated photo with members of his Navy squadron aboard the USS Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam War. Tribune File Photo

Editor’s note: This story was first published in the Tribune on March 28, 2013.

SOUTH BEND — There are some days a person never forgets. Forty years ago, March 28, 1973, was one of those days for Joe Kernan.

Kernan, then a naval flight officer, had just endured 11 months as a prisoner of war toward the end of the Vietnam War. But on this early spring morning, Kernan and 67 other former POWs were at Hanoi’s Gia Lam Airport. They were escorted by Air Force officials to a waiting C-141 transport plane.

“We got aboard and taxied out and started to roll,” Kernan said. “When the pilot said, ‘Wheels are in the well’ that’s when everybody went nuts. A big hoot and holler went up.”

For Kernan, the former South Bend mayor and Indiana governor, it was the end of a long ordeal.

Kernan followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father when he enlisted in the Navy in the spring of 1969.

“I had decided I wanted to join the Navy and I wanted to fly,” he said. “It was the opportunity to do something I wanted to do instead of sitting around and waiting to get drafted.”

After completing aviation officer candidate school in Florida and navigation training in Georgia, Kernan was given his wings and assigned to a flight squadron. He spent more than a year training aboard his RA-5C Vigilante reconnaissance aircraft before he was assigned to a fleet squadron and deployed to Vietnam in January 1972 aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.

“We did two things. We did road reconnaissance, which was searching for enemy traffic primarily along the Ho Chi Minh trail,” Kernan said. “We’d bring our film back to the ship, it would be developed and if there was traffic that merited some kind of attention we would have other aircraft that would go after those targets.

“The second thing we did was bomb damage assessment. That was to determine whether a target had been sufficiently destroyed or whether we needed to go back and hit it again.”

On May 7, 1972, on Kernan’s 26th combat mission, his RA-5C Vigilante took off with its F-4 Phantom fighter escort for a bomb damage assessment run. After the assessment, squadron commanders asked Kernan to do some road reconnaissance along Vietnam’s Highway 1, the main highway.

“We came over our target, it was a truck park, a staging area for troops and tanks and trucks. We took pictures of that target and as we continued down Highway 1 we were about halfway through our mission and got hit by anti-aircraft fire,” Kernan recalled. “We got hit in the tail. The nose pitched down violently. We came right out of it.

“As we rolled wings level, the nose pitched down again and we were pointed at the ground. I look at the altimeter I had — 2,900 feet — I made the decision to eject not knowing anything other than I didn’t want to ride it in.”

The cockpit filled with light and Kernan was flung at forces approaching 23Gs from the aircraft, rendering him unconscious from the force of the ejection.

He landed in a small village.

“When I got up, people were coming from everywhere. I was surrounded and was getting kicked around,” he said. “I was carrying a .38 revolver with flares in it. So, you’re not going to start a land war with six rounds of small flares.”

Kernan was quickly subdued, stripped to his underwear and brought to Hanoi. He did time in two of the most infamous POW prisons of the war, the Hanoi Hilton and one dubbed “The Zoo,” he said.

There he would stay for 11 months, until the peace agreements were signed, the C-141s allowed in to remove the former prisoners.

For seven weeks, Kernan was listed as missing in action.

The first month, Kernan was kept in isolation. Eventually, another prisoner was brought in with him. The two discreetly talked.

“He said, ‘Your escort lost you guys and you’re presumed dead.’ That was the worst day of my life,” Kernan said. “I assumed my family thought I was dead, the Navy thought I was dead and if everybody thinks I’m dead there’s no reason for these guys to keep me alive. It wasn’t until three months later I found out my family knew I was alive.”

Kernan’s path home came through the Philippines, Hawaii and eventually Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. After 90 days’ leave, Kernan spent another 18 months in the Navy even though he could have gotten out at any time.

“Wouldn’t trade it for anything,” he said. “I loved it. Made great friends.”

He’s spent the past four decades observing his shoot-down day as a nod to those less fortunate the more than 58,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who never made it out of Vietnam alive.

“Every May 7, I play golf with friends,” Kernan said. “Of the things I missed in Vietnam what I missed most was pizza and beer on Friday nights. So after playing golf I go to Rocco’s, eat pizza and drink some beer.

“I’ve been doing that a long time now. It’s a day when it could have gone the other way, very easily and with greater probability. With flight crews in Vietnam that got shot down, three out of four didn’t come home.”

Kernan said it’s hard to believe it’s been 40 years.

“Some days it seems like it was 100 years ago. Some days it feels like last week,” he said. “I got the big break. I have no regrets, no second thoughts about the things I’ve done over the last 40 years.

“I count my blessings. The odds are that I wouldn’t be here. If I’d waited to eject another second, to punch out, I wouldn’t be here.”

Michael Daher, death June 26, 2020

Born January 26, 1946. Passed away June 26, 2020 from cancer. Michael died at home surrounded by family. He was husband of Nancy (Henry) Daher, father of Julia, Margaret, and Matthew Daher, stepfather of Ann Chrapkiewicz and Elaine Lande, grandfather of Freya, Forrest, Lynn, and Alex, and brother of Donald and Douglas. He was a lifelong resident of Grosse Pointe and a deeply committed public servant and educator. He dedicated his career to creating as many educational opportunities as possible for his students as an English professor at Wayne State University and at Henry Ford College, where he taught for nearly 40 years. His industriousness, compassion and vibrant mind were admired and appreciated by his students, colleagues, family and friends. He will be remembered for his pursuit of knowledge and adept ability to connect with the world around him and those he cared about through his love of language and literature. Warm remembrances of him by current and former colleagues and students at Henry Ford College can be found here: