Joe Kernan’s Enduring Lessons

A lucky student got to travel with the former governor to a speaking engagement in Indianapolis. His example inspired a career in public service.

Author: Cole Wogoman ’14

Editor’s Note: Joe Kernan’s life of public service was featured in the summer issue of this magazine. That story inspired the reflection below, intended as a personal correspondence between Cole Wogoman ’14 and the Kernan family. With the news of Kernan’s death July 29, the magazine asked Wogoman to share his memories with our readers. 

Dear Governor Kernan,

I am originally from Middlebury, Indiana, and my earliest political memory is sitting at the dinner table with my parents as they discussed whether to vote for Governor Kernan or Mitch Daniels in the 2004 gubernatorial election. I don’t know how they ended up voting, but I do recall being enamored with the election. From that point on, I have loved politics, government and public service.

A few years later my father took me to the Notre Dame baseball end-of-season banquet. I remember coming up to you to ask for a picture. I could not pass up an opportunity to get a photo with a former Indiana governor. You were kind and gracious, and posed with me.

That picture stood on the shelf in my room for years until I went to college. I was lucky enough to get into my dream school, Notre Dame. During my senior year, you were teaching a political science class in the spring. I wanted to take that class so badly, but I knew demand would be high and space was limited. In order to stand out, I attached the photo of us from the baseball banquet to my application. I don’t know whether that is what did the trick, but I got into the class.

Photo courtesy of Cole Wogoman

I thoroughly enjoyed learning about your unique perspective as a Navy veteran, former mayor and governor. The highlight of the class, though, was when you invited a few of us to tag along on a trip to Indianapolis for a speech you gave about the death penalty. As it turned out, no one else in the class could make it, so I was fortunate enough to accompany you to Indianapolis for a couple days.

I was thrilled to have the former Indiana governor’s attention to ask as many questions as I could on the drive there and back — and, trust me, I didn’t waste the opportunity. I think by the end of the trip you were ready to get me back to Notre Dame.

That time in the car with you, while assuredly unremarkable to you, were some of the most important and memorable hours of my college career. I asked about your childhood, your time at Notre Dame, your interest in public service, your tenure as governor and your purchase of South Bend’s minor league baseball team, the Silver Hawks.

I couldn’t believe I was able to get a first-hand account of the sad but historic day when Governor O’Bannon died. As a massive baseball fan, I was in awe as you described attending the game in Atlanta when Hank Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th home run, as well as Cal Ripken’s iron man record-breaking game in Baltimore. Before that trip I didn’t even know lifetime passes to Major League Baseball games existed.

I was thrilled to be taken to your favorite burger joint in Indianapolis (whose name unfortunately has escaped me) and to meet your lieutenant governor and other old friends. After we stayed at your pal Jon Laramore’s house (who I actually happened to know from working on Joe Donnelly’s U.S. Senate campaign with his son), we stopped at McDonalds for breakfast and people came up to you to shake your hand. You gave me advice on what to say when someone comes up to you and asks if you remember their name: “Remind me!”

I could go on and on. Those two days meant the world to me. I learned more about politics and Indiana’s government than I did during the rest of college. I made sure to remember every story and every piece of advice you gave because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear them from someone who was living history.

That time with you inspired me to go into public service, and I now serve as legislative counsel for a Washington, D.C., city council member. I love my job and so much of how I handle myself comes from the advice you gave me.

Please know that you and your wife, Maggie, are in my thoughts and prayers. Thank you again for the time you spent with me years ago. I will cherish those memories forever.

Cole Wogoman is an attorney living in Washington, D.C., where he works for the city council.