From shortstop to Vietnam to governor, then back to South Bend
Joe Kernan needed some hope.
He had said his Hail Marys over and over. He continued to pound out his pushups. He kept drawing the features of his future wife, Maggie McCullough, in his mind.
But it was still the lowest point in his life. He was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and alone in his cell. As a navigator on a photo reconnaissance flight off the USS Kitty Hawk, he and his pilot had to bail out after their plane was hit by enemy fire.
That was May 7, 1972. When he landed near a village, he was battered and bruised. He was stripped down to his boxers by his captors, North Vietnamese soldiers. He was taken to the notorious prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.
“For the first month of my 11 months there, I was in a cell by myself,” he says. “That was my most difficult time.”
He didn’t know if Maggie and his family had gotten word that he still might be alive.
Kernan desperately needed some hope.
“Then one day, a fellow prisoner named Steve Rudloff from Brooklyn was let out of his cell to work and he started whistling the ‘Notre Dame Victory March,’” says Kernan, a 1968 University of Notre Dame graduate. “I can’t describe what an upper that was for me.”
The “Victory March”—whistled by a stranger thousands of miles from home—never sounded so sweet.
It brought tears to his eyes, buoyed his spirits and made him remember all the lessons he had learned as an Irish baseball player.
“Maggie once told me that the biggest challenge she had to overcome out in the business world was that she never got to play team sports like I did,” Kernan says. “She was talking about things I had taken for granted—teamwork, competitiveness, sportsmanship and a never-say-die attitude.”
Kernan would use that experience later in his life when he was mayor of South Bend and governor of Indiana. “Those lessons I learned as an athlete at Notre Dame are an important part of who I am,” he says.
And in the late spring of 1972, those same lessons helped him focus and even survive, especially that never-say-die attitude.
The “Notre Dame Victory March”—Steve Rudloff’s rendition—made Kernan remember what a hard-nosed competitor he could be.
Suddenly, he had his hope.
“One of my goals after that was to be out of prison in time for my five-year reunion [at Notre Dame],” Kernan says. “I made it. That was something special.”
Of course, Notre Dame has always been special to Kernan. He grew up in South Bend as the oldest of nine children. “So we had no money and I didn’t think there would be any chance for me to go there.”
He loved his baseball, too. His grandfather had been in the Chicago White Sox system and his dad had coached him in Little League. Baseball was a family affair.
At South Bend Saint Joseph’s High School, he had played well enough to receive some passing interest from a few small colleges. “Then one day, my dad asked me where I really wanted to go to school,” Kernan says. “I told him Notre Dame. He said, ‘Then go. We’ll figure it out.’”
And so he did.
“That was a great learning experience from my dad,” Kernan says. “It taught me if I really wanted something, I should go after it—that good things will happen.”
It took a while before those ‘good things’ began to happen on the baseball field, though. Kernan was the second-string second baseman on the Irish freshman team. “And like most second-stringers, I thought I should be starting,” he says.
He did have one shining moment in the only game the freshman team played that season—held at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City of all places. “We were playing the trustees, so all of the other prisoners were rooting for us,” Kernan recalls. “The outfield wall was only about 260 feet away, but 30 feet high, and I put one over it. And I can still remember as if it was yesterday that when I rounded third, one of the
inmates started singing ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’”
Kernan was certainly happy to be at Notre Dame, but he had to pinch his pennies. He received some financial aid from the Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley and worked part time at WNDU, answering the phones, holding the cameras steady and driving the station’s truck on errands and deliveries. He also worked for Bengal Bouts legend Dominic “Nappy” Napolitano in the Intramural Office at Notre Dame for a few years.
Baseball was sometimes a hard fit for his schedule. And when he didn’t start on the freshman team, he wondered if it was worth it. “Going into my sophomore year, I kicked around the idea of going to Spain to study,” Kernan says. “But then I got a letter from my dad (who had moved the family to Washington, D.C.). He wrote that the chance to be part of a team at Notre Dame was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. His advice was to stick with it.”
So in the spring, Kernan put back on his cleats and saw action in 10 varsity games. Of course, he wanted to be a starter and so he came up with a plan. “Before my junior year, I asked Jake (Kline, the longtime Irish baseball coach) if he would mind if I tried out for catcher.”
Kline said sure, whatever. “So every day for about a month, Jim Gibbons (the former Irish baseball and basketball player and assistant coach) would drive me out to Clay High School after practice and we would meet up with (Clay coach) Jim Reinebold. Both of them worked with me on my catching skills and I am forever indebted to them. When the season began, I had the [starting] job.”
During that season, the Irish were really good, with guys like Kevin Hardy and Bob Kuechenberg from the football team and Bob Arnzen and George Restovich from the basketball team giving the squad some added punch. “We were 17-8 and needed to beat Valparaiso in a play-in game to get into the NCAA Regional at Southern Illinois.” Kernan says. “But Notre Dame turned down the chance because the tournament would conflict with our finals. We couldn’t believe it.” (They ended up playing and crushing Valpo anyway.)
It was a bitter pill to swallow for the team and Kernan who had written Omaha (the site of the NCAA College World Series) on the back of his glove.
He earned his second monogram as a senior, playing second, third and catcher. “And Dad was right again. Being a part of a Notre Dame team is something I have always treasured.”
Kernan became part of America’s team in May 1969 when he entered the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School. As a lieutenant, he earned his Naval Flight Officer wings in 1970.
He had already served his country three years when he was shot down over Vietnam. He spent 11 months as a prisoner of war and his awards included two Purple Hearts, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Navy Commendation Medal.
Kernan and other returning POWs also received a lifetime pass to Major League Baseball. “A cherished possession,” he says. “I thought a lot about baseball as a POW and just hoped I would get to see some more games.”
After being discharged in 1974, Kernan spent several years in the business world. He entered public service in 1979 as South Bend’s controller. He became mayor in 1987 and was re-elected twice with landslide victories.
But in 1996—early in his third term as mayor—Kernan was elected as Indiana’s lieutenant governor. He and Gov. Frank O’Bannon were re-elected in 2000. He then took over as governor on Sept. 13, 2003, during an emotional ceremony after O’Bannon’s unexpected death following a massive stroke. Kernan returned to South Bend in 2006 after losing to Mitch Daniels in his bid for another term as governor.
In 1998 while lieutenant governor, he was asked to give the commencement speech at Notre Dame. A few students, including the senior class president, protested his choice, saying he wasn’t a big enough name.
Kernan smiles at that memory. “Nothing was going to rain on my parade,” he says. “It was such a thrill to be asked. And I was probably in her [the class president’s] camp anyway.”
He always has been known for his self-effacing ways and for being a regular guy. After six years as president of the South Bend Silver Hawks, a Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks (Kernan and his investors sold the team in November to Chicago businessman Andrew T. Berlin), he has remained just Joe—good ol’ Joe—to so many out at the ball park … in the community … and over at his alma mater. After rubbing elbows for decades in the political world, he has come full circle—now back in his hometown, promoting the Silver Hawks the last half-dozen years and trying to make South Bend a better place to live.
He now teaches a government course at his alma mater and continues to be an avid Fighting Irish fan, occasionally wearing his Notre Dame Monogram Club jacket.
Kernan also can still get a little choked up when he hears the “Notre Dame Victory March.”
“I often think back to when I heard [Steve Rudloff whistling] it while I was in prison and to May 7, the day I was shot down,” he admits.
“It reminds me of how fortunate and blessed I have been. Every day is a bonus.”