Joe Kernan

Lt. Gov. Joe Kernan speaks at the dedication of the Falls Pointe Business & Industrial Park and ASA groundbreaking in this file photo from July 3, 2001, in Anderson.

ANDERSON — Local lawmakers remembered former Gov. Joe Kernan for his selfless service, personal touch and optimistic outlook.

“Joe Kernan wasn’t in it for the limelight. He was in it to try to make Indiana better, and make people’s lives better, and that’s what we should all be about in public service,” said state Rep. Terri Austin of Anderson.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Kernan died Wednesday at the age of 74.

He graduated with a degree in government from Notre Dame University, where he was a catcher on the baseball team.

After graduation he joined the Navy serving as a flight officer aboard the USS Kitty Hawk.

Shot down on a reconnaissance mission, he was held as a prisoner of war for 11 months in North Vietnam.

Surviving those dark days gave him an optimistic outlook.

“He was always so positive, so upbeat, he believed we could get anything done,” Austin said.

He was elected to three consecutive terms as the mayor of South Bend before joining Frank O’Bannon on the Democratic ticket as the candidate for lieutenant governor in 1996.

After the death of Gov. O’Bannon in 2003 Kernan became governor and made history when he appointed Kathy Davis as the state’s first female lieutenant governor.

“Gov. O’Bannon’s death was sudden, but he was immediately prepared to take over and to show the leadership that was needed at that time,” state Sen. Tim Lanane said about Kernan.

As lieutenant governor, Kernan served as president of the Indiana Senate, where Lanane remembers him as being held in the highest regard.

“Even though he was a Democrat and the chamber was controlled by Republicans he got along very well with everybody, and was very fair,” Lanane said.

He also remembers Kernan’s personal touch, sending a handwritten note to his daughter Katie when she graduated from high school and driving down from South Bend for the wake of the Lananes’ youngest daughter, Meaghan.

“Our family really appreciated that,” Lanane said.

Austin also recalls that personal touch. In her first legislative term a party-line vote put an end to a bill for full-day kindergarten.

At the time, Mitch Daniels’ gubernatorial campaign came out against full-day kindergarten while Kernan was in favor of it.

“I remember Joe Kernan called and left me a voicemail, just words of encouragement and thanking me ... it made a huge impact on me, he was wonderful,” Austin said.

Kernan returned to South Bend after losing his reelection bid to Republican Mitch Daniels in 2004.

He is survived by his wife, Maggie, whom he married in 1974, and seven siblings.

Follow Don Knight on Twitter @donwknight, or call 765-622-1212 ext. 204567.

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