(July 7, 1900-Jan. 29, 1971). Born in Indianapolis, Kern was the son of John Worth Kern Sr.—vice-presidential candidate with William Jennings Bryan in the 1908 presidential election, twice Indiana gubernatorial candidate, and former U.S. Senate majority leader. When he was eight years old, the junior Kern was stricken with polio, leaving both of his legs paralyzed for life.

Mayor John W. Kern Jr. (on crutches) at Beautility Home opening celebration, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1935 Credit: The Indiana Album: Joan Hostetler Collection View Source

In 1920, Kern graduated from Washington and Lee University in Virginia. Kern then received his law degree from Harvard University in 1923. Returning to Indianapolis, Kern started a private practice and was named as a U.S. commissioner, a post he held until 1931. He taught law at the Indianapolis branch of Indiana University School of Law and served as Indianapolis Bar Association secretary from 1924 to 1930.

In 1924, Kern was the Democratic nominee for Indiana supreme and appellate courts reporter. Although unsuccessful in his first try for public office, Kern had better luck six years later when he was elected Marion County Superior Court judge. His electoral success continued when the 34-year-old Kern was the Democratic nominee for Indianapolis mayor. In the election, he defeated Republican opponent Walter Pritchard by approximately 14,000 votes and officially became mayor in 1935.

Kern resigned from office on September 2, 1937, when he was named to the 16-member U.S. Board of Tax Appeals by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Roosevelt, who had also been a victim of polio earlier in his life, appeared in Indianapolis on Kern’s behalf during the 1936 mayoral campaign.) City Controller Walter C. Boetcher filled out the rest of Kern’s term, which ended in 1939.

During his years in Washington, D.C., with the federal tax court, Kern was named Harvard Law School Alumni Association president and was a member of the University of Virginia’s law faculty. Kern retired from the bench in 1961, having served three successive terms as the tax court’s chief judge. However, he was subsequently recalled to his post and continued to serve on the court until his death.

Revised February 2021

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