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Football Program Story: Joe Kernan (’68)

Sep 19, 2014, 8:40 AM EDT

Kernan was a catcher on the Irish baseball teams in the mid-1960s.

The following feature on Joe Kernan (’68, baseball) was written by Joanne Norell, and first appeared in the football program for the Notre Dame vs. Purdue game on Sept. 13, 2014.

Former University of Notre Dame baseball player Joe Kernan, a 1968 graduate of the University, fondly remembers growing up in South Bend and the certain feeling that Notre Dame was the best place in the world.

Perhaps that is why the former Indiana governor has not left its orbit for very long. Since moving to South Bend from Illinois at the age of 10, Kernan has considered himself a Hoosier, and Notre Dame a second home. In fact, he never considered other options when deciding upon where to continue his education.

“From the day I got [to Indiana], I only was a few blocks from campus. I grew up with Notre Dame as much as anything,” says Kernan, who also attended St. Joseph’s High School in South Bend. “When I was making the decision on where to apply to schools my senior year in high school, I only applied to Notre Dame. As it turned out, it proved to be the best decision of my life.”

Though he grew up playing multiple sports, baseball was Kernan’s first love, and he earned three Monograms with the Fighting Irish from 1966-68 (freshman were not eligible for varsity competition until 1972). Kernan is one of several prominent former Notre Dame alumni from the South Bend and Michiana communities who have graduated from the University and count themselves as Hoosiers. It had great significance and meaning for Kernan to be so close to home and to put on that Fighting Irish uniform.

“It was meaningful for me to be able to attend school and play the sport that I loved at a place that was just a couple of blocks away from where I grew up,” Kernan says. “It’s a unique opportunity to be able to be involved in a team, to make friends for the rest of my life, and to learn more about how important a team is no matter what you’re doing. There are so many life lessons that one can learn from playing competitive team sports.”

Kernan went on to put those lessons to use during six decades in public service. After graduating from Notre Dame, he joined the United States Navy, serving as a Naval Flight Officer during the Vietnam War. While on a reconnaissance mission in 1972 in North Vietnam, Kernan was held a prisoner of war for 11 months. He returned to the United States in 1973 and remained on active duty until 1974. For his service, Kernan received numerous awards, including the Navy Commendation Medal, two Purple Hearts and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

South Bend, however, always pulled Kernan back home. After spending a year working for Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, Ohio, Kernan returned to the South Bend area, where he worked for the Schwartz Paper Company and the MacWilliams Corporation. In 1980, he began his career in government, working as the city’s controller until 1984.

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Kernan was the recipient of the Monogram Club’s prestigious Moose Krause Distinguished Service Award in 2012.

Kernan began a three-year term as mayor of South Bend after being elected in 1987, and ended up serving three terms. When all was said and done, that three-year team proved to be the longest of any mayor in South Bend history.

In 1996, Kernan was elected Lieutenant Governor of Indiana on the Frank O’Bannon ticket, and he won again in 2000. Upon O’Bannon’s death in 2003, Kernan assumed the governorship, where he worked to provide services to veterans and higher education opportunities to Hoosiers.

From his positions atop city and state government, Kernan has had a unique perspective about the role of places like Notre Dame as assets to the community, and thinks it is important for the University to be able to keep students and athletes in Indiana.

“I think that being able to attract student-athletes from Indiana is good both for the individuals and certainly for the university to have homegrown talent that plays in a variety of different sports.

“One little-known fact is that Notre Dame is the second-largest attraction in Indiana after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with (not only) the number of people that come on football weekends, but (also) those that come to see Notre Dame and see what it’s about and get a taste of what a great place it is,” Kernan says.

That celebration of Indiana will take center stage during this weekend’s Shamrock Series when the Irish take on the Purdue Boilermakers in the state capital. The two schools have collaborated off the gridiron on technology projects that will help bring jobs to the state.

Since his term as governor ended in 2005, Kernan has returned to private life, helping to keep the South Bend Silver Hawks Class A minor league baseball franchise in South Bend as an investor and managing member. In 2012, he was the recipient of the Monogram Club’s Moose Krause Distinguished Service Award. He currently teaches a political science class at Notre Dame. From the Golden Dome to the Statehouse and back, Kernan and his wife, Maggie, are happy to continue calling South Bend home.

“I love South Bend,” Kernan says. “We have never had a conversation about living anywhere else. We both relish our ties to Indiana and we’re not going anywhere.”

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