Barbara McKernan is mostly remembered as the mother of former governor John McKernan. But, in addition to counseling her son while he occupied the Blaine House, she ran a newspaper, led the Maine Municipal Association and helped Bangor Savings Bank grow. The active and accomplished former “first mother” died Wednesday at the age of 86.
Mrs. McKernan moved to Bangor during her grade school years. After attending college in New York and working in Washington, D.C., during World War II, she returned to Bangor and became increasingly involved in civic affairs. She and her husband, John McKernan Sr., bought the Penobscot Times in 1954. While raising her sons, she remained the paper’s publisher for 10 years after her husband’s death in 1964. She then worked in community relations for Eastern Maine Medical Center and later Bangor Savings Bank.
Mrs. McKernan was also politically active. She served on the Bangor City Council from 1977 to 1983. During her tenure, she was elected president of the Maine Municipal Association.
“Barbara was an unstoppable force who had a tremendously positive influence on the development of Bangor,” Gov. John Baldacci said. “She was involved in so many important public matters all while remaining deeply committed to her family. She was an amazing woman.”
Her son, John, known as Jock, was elected governor in 1986. “I’m very proud,” she said simply the day after his election. Asked if she would live in the Blaine House with her divorced son, Mrs. McKernan asked “Would you want your mother living with you?” She did, however, have ideas about using and decorating the Blaine House and about running the state.
Advertising executive John Christie went to work for Bangor Savings Bank in the late 1980s. Since the bank did not have room for an office for him, he shared one with Mrs. McKernan. “I heard all sorts of clandestine phone conversations where she told Jock how to run the state,” Mr. Christie recalled. “She did a wonderful job of that.” She was, Mr. Christie said, Maine’s “first mother” during her son’s two terms as governor, although she steadfastly denied any responsibility for the state government shutdown that many remember from the McKernan governorship.
Mrs. McKernan also worked with Mr. Christie on Bangor Savings Bank’s first television commercials. Although she wanted a beaver in the ads, Mr. Christie supplied his own kittens for a Christmas spot that generations of Bangor residents still associate with the bank.
Beyond the kittens and a governor, Mrs. McKernan leaves a legacy of civic and family dedication that will long be remembered.