Former Gov. Joe Kernan may have been the most impressive leader most Hoosiers never really got to know. Those who did – I was fortunate enough to be one of them – know we lost an extraordinarily good man when he died at 74 Wednesday.
People in South Bend knew him as a visionary leader, their longest-serving mayor. In the 1990s, he was like the Tom Henry of South Bend in his vision for a renewed downtown in that city.
In 1996, gubernatorial candidate Frank O'Bannon tapped him as his running mate. Kernan served six years as lieutenant governor.
But Kernan, a Democrat, was far from the average ambitious politician. He readily owned up to misjudgments.
I once asked Kernan at a state election campaign news conference how he assessed the much-criticized College Football Hall of Fame, his proudest project during his South Bend years.
I was astonished at his candor.
“It was a mistake,” he said, admitting the project was a failure and a drain on city resources. The hall eventually moved to Atlanta.
Kernan never seemed to enjoy state government as much as running a city. He liked being close to the folks he was trying to help.
O'Bannon died of a stroke in 2003, and Kernan was left to serve the rest of his term. Party leaders prevailed on Kernan, ever the good party soldier, to run to retain his office, which he lost to Mitch Daniels in 2004.
One story captures the essence of Kernan, who often urged people he met to pick up litter as they walked the streets. Early one Sunday morning, a local journalist caught sight of Kernan walking in South Bend's downtown riverfront park. No one else was in sight, and the reporter knew Kernan had not seen her.
She watched as he climbed down a hill, picked up a piece of trash and walked over to deposit it in a trash bin. Doing the right thing, even when he thought no one was looking – that was Joe.
Tim Harmon is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.