‘Perfect’ for St. Patrick’s Day: Bust of former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan unveiled at Statehouse

Indiana’s late 48th governor was memorialized in a sculpture now on display at the state capitol building.

By: - March 17, 2023 2:59 pm

A bust of former Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan unveiled at the Statehouse on Friday, March 17, 2023. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

It was a St. Patrick’s Day suited “just right” for Indiana’s former Gov. Joe Kernan.

In the Statehouse Rotunda Friday morning, state officials – current and former — gathered together alongside friends and family of Indiana’s 48th governor for the unveiling of a bust in Kernan’s memory.

The late Democratic leader was previously lieutenant governor to Frank O’Bannon. Kernan took helm of Indiana’s executive branch in 2003 following O’Bannon’s death. Before that, Kernan served as mayor of South Bend from 1988 to 1997, making him the long-serving mayor of the city.

Kernan, 74, died in 2020 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. 

“It’s obviously just a perfect day, on St. Patrick’s Day, that we set aside time for this unveiling of this truly — a man that’s been kind of referred to over time as a legend, a leader, a statesman, and so much more than that. Gov. Joe Kernan was certainly all three of those,” said Gov. Eric Holcomb at the bust unveiling ceremony that came complete with Irish bagpipes and a rendition of the Irish national anthem.

A gubernatorial portrait of Kernan now sits directly above Holcomb’s desk at the Statehouse.

“This official portrait of him, kind of larger than life, to this day, still looks down at me over my shoulder — almost as if he’s grading my work … it will not come down on my watch,” Holcomb said, lightheartedly.

“Joe could connect with anyone, anywhere,” Holcomb continued. “His character was impeccable, his courage unwavering — his unrelenting commitment to duty is again, legendary.”

Gov. Eric Holcomb poses alongside former Lt. Gov. Kathy Davis and family of the late Gov. Joe Kernan on Friday, March 17, 2023. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Terry Kernan, younger brother of the former governor, added that the older Kernan was “proud” of his Irish heritage. He graduated from St. Joseph’s High School in South Bend and later was a catcher on the “Fighting Irish” baseball team at the University of Notre Dame.

Many who spoke about Kernan on Friday recalled his lifelong love for sports — especially baseball.

And although Kernan was a Navy veteran who spent nearly 11 months as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, Terry said his brother was quiet about his service.

“His passion for helping others — especially fellow veterans — was contagious. Whether it was in an airport, at a grocery store, at a saloon — if there was somebody in there that had a hat that said veteran on it, Joe would always thank them for their service. But he would never say who he was,” Terry said. 

He recalled, too, the first time the former governor visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

“I was with him, and so many people were coming up to him and talking about their experiences, and Joe never said once, ‘I was a POW in Vietnam,’” Terry said. “That was just Joe, very humble, not pretentious, and really wasn’t the one looking for all the limelight.”

Kernan’s bust was created by sculptor Ryan Feeney, who also serves as an Indianapolis firefighter. Feeney’s other works include a famed Peyton Manning statue in Lucas Oil Stadium. He also forged the eagle atop of the 9/11 Memorial in downtown Indianapolis.

The bust will be on display on the second floor of the state capitol building, near sculptures of other famous Hoosiers and U.S. politicians.


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.