A few days after Columbus native Mike Pence was selected by Donald Trump as his running mate on the 2016 Republican presidential ticket, the New York Times printed an excellent article about the vice-presidential nominee’s hometown and how it might have molded him for the future.
If it did, the article pointed out, the town that shaped him is a lot different now than the one in which he lived more than 40 years ago.
Writer Michel Wines and a team of Times researchers pointed out that the Columbus of Gov. Pence’s youth was an insular community, almost entirely white and conservative in its politics.
In contrast, the Columbus of today is much more diverse and welcoming, populated by a far greater mix of cultures and races than the residents of two and three generations ago could ever have imagined.
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Attitudes also have also changed as illustrated in the article by reactions to his gubernatorial support for the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act which many have interpreted as being biased against those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. Long before that was adopted — and later changed as a result of strong opposition — Columbus had adopted a resolution which denounced discrimination against those in that community.
There are a lot of other differences in the Columbus of Mike Pence’s youth and the Columbus of today.
I leave it to others to decide which Columbus molded the man who could be a heartbeat from the presidency, but I went through a recent experience which provided me with a personal insight into how one’s early surroundings can mold a person and how that same person could be changed by other influences elsewhere.
My wife Julie and I spent a weekend with friends in Bardstown, Kentucky. For me it was a kind of journey into the past. I was born and raised in Bardstown. For the first 18 years of my life I seldom ventured outside the small town. I was taught in Catholic schools, first by the Sisters of Charity and later by the Xaverian Brothers.
Bardstown and Columbus of that time had similar characteristics. Both were small — Bardstown had a constant population of around 5,000 — and it was also very insular.
The insularity had more to do with religion than race. Bardstown then was almost entirely Catholic. There were other denominations in town but our parish priest often warned that any of us who set foot in one of them was committing a mortal sin and would be condemned to Hell and damnation if we died or were killed before admitting it in the confessional.
There was a race insularity as well, but Bardstown had far more blacks among its populace than did Columbus when Mike Pence was growing up here. In Bardstown, the blacks had their own section. They also had their own church (Catholic, of course), their own school, even their own swimming pool. The paths of the two races simply didn’t cross very often.
It never occurred to me in those years in Bardstown that there was something amiss in this picture of what were essentially two communities _ one white, one black. I, like most of my contemporaries, accepted it as being the way it was — at least not until one summer day when I was on break from my studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Things had already begun to change in my way of looking at things. Although I had continued my Catholic education, a lot of what I had been taught by the nuns and brothers and even my own family were suddenly put into question. I still remember my embarrassment in a classroom when in a discussion about morality in films I suggested that the principals in the famous beach kissing scene involving Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr were committing a mortal sin. The laughter of my classmates and the teacher, who was a Holy Cross priest, still rings in my ears.
But it was that incident on a summer day in Bardstown which brought home to me the fact that there was another world, much different than the one in which I had lived.
I was sitting on the porch of my mother’s house when I looked up and saw two young black men walking along the sidewalk. I still remember my reaction. I had never in my previous 20 years seen young black men walking in my neighborhood. What were they doing in my neighborhood? What did they have in mind?
I still cringe when I think back on those reactions. I am afraid, in some ignorant fashion, I was behaving like a racist.
In the years that followed, I grew away from that insular upbringing. I was thrust into new situations, met people of different origins, dealt with situations the likes of which I had never faced.
I changed and so did my attitudes, but the process was slow.
In the Army, for instance, homosexuality was something rarely discussed. I suppose that was in part because there “weren’t any gays in the Army,” at least none that dared make that admission. They were called horrible names. Those who were exposed not only risked dishonorable discharge but prison sentences.
Early in my journalism career as a young sports writer I was witness to a kind of silent racism. I came to Columbus in 1966 as a sports editor. About that same time Mike Pence was a student in St. Columba’s elementary school.
Among other things I covered Columbus High School sports. There weren’t many black athletes on the school’s teams in those days. I suppose it had more to do with the fact that there weren’t that many blacks in Columbus but there could have been something else.
I remember one year Bill Stearman’s team was hosting Indianapolis Washington. The Bull Dogs were good that year but few thought they had any chance against Washington, which boasted two stars who were also black — George McGinnis and Steve Downing. McGinnis and Downing were genuine stars but there were many in the gym that night who thought Washington was invincible since they believed that blacks could jump higher than whites.
In an ironic way, I believe many of those attitudes were changed when Columbus upset Washington that night. The myth that “blacks could jump higher,” was replaced by the reality that while McGinnis and Downing were good, they were also human.
As I said earlier, it’s unfair to judge which Columbus molded Mike Pence, or whether either one did.
Pence grew up in a Columbus that was changing. He was here when leaders like J. Irwin Miller and William Laws forced the community to begin abandoning the racism that had been part of its fabric. Even after he had left the town of his birth, his family remained and he visited frequently, being witness to even more drastic changes and acceptances.
Perhaps he was influenced by both the old and new Columbus. While there were bad things that were characteristic of the town of his birth, there were also good qualities, some of which were carried forward to the present.
Regardless of which influenced him, there is no question that the Columbus of today is vastly different than the hometown of his youth.
And for that, I think we can all be thankful.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.