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Remembering Joe Kernan

Published: Jul. 29, 2020 at 6:58 PM EDT
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - There aren’t many people who are charismatic enough to be known on a first name—one name basis, but in South Bend ‘Joe’ pretty much means Joe Kernan.

Joe Kernan went from being a catcher on the Notre Dame baseball team, to being the school’s commencement speaker.

“Did pretty well didn’t he? That’s I think, that’s the only one in history that’s done that,” said Richard Nussbaum, Mayor Kerman’s one time city attorney. “He was a much better commencement speaker than he was a catcher and he was a pretty good catcher too.”

In between, in 1972, Navy Lt. Joe Kernan spent nearly a year as a prisoner of war at the infamous Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam.

“For me every day has been a bonus because it could have gone the other way,” Kernan once said.

Joe did come back and in 1987 he decided to run for mayor, challenging Richard Jasinski in the primary.

The rest is history.

“When Joe was mayor here for three terms Frank O’Bannon wanted Joe to be his Lt. Governor and Joe just wanted to be the mayor of South Bend and I believe he turned Frank down a couple of times. But Joe had like an 80 percent approval rating which was incredible so Frank said Joe I need you and Joe said of course, I’m happy to,” said Kernan’s life long friend Pat Barth.

In 2003, Joe became governor when Frank O’Bannon died of a sudden stroke.

Governor Kernan lost a bid for a term of his own.

He later returned to South Bend and formed a group of 50 investors that bought his hometown minor league baseball team -the Silver Hawks (which later became the South Bend Cubs).

“And he kept the team here in South Bend and He did it at great sacrifice. This was not something that was financially rewarding for him at all and it would have never happened without him,” Nussbaum stated.

The team was apparently poised to be sold to owners who wanted to move somewhere else.

Today a man with so much to remember died after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

“Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease. It imprisons people in their bodies. It cuts away their memories. One of the things about Joe is he had such a terrific memory. He never forgot you. He’d remember, he remembered my kids names, he remembered my grandkids names, so to see him lose that facility was disheartening, tragic really,” former South Bend Mayor Steve Luecke told 16 News Now.

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