Note: This story appeared in the winter 2013 edition of Columbus Magazine. Donald Trump and Mike Pence are slated to become president and vice president on Jan. 20, 2017.
By Ashley Petry
When Mike Pence strides through the opulent rooms of the Governor’s Residence or beneath the dome of the Indiana Statehouse, it’s easy to forget that the Columbus native grew up in a modest home on 31st Street, packed in with his parents and five siblings. That he spent his summers barefoot, wading in Haw Creek and playing baseball in vacant lots. That from a young age he earned money by working as a paperboy for The Republic.
One year into his term as Indiana governor, Pence has crafted a public image as a common-sense conservative focused on the economy and education. He previously served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he held a variety of leadership positions, and his name often appears on the short list of potential Republican presidential candidates. But at heart, Pence is still guided by his family, his faith and the small-town values he learned growing up in Columbus.
“Columbus is home and always will be for me,” he said. “(Karen and I) both feel that we were really blessed in the way that we grew up, and all of those experiences prepared us for what we’re doing today for the people of Indiana.”
A Boy from Everroad Park West
Born in 1959, Pence was named for his grandfather, a Chicago bus driver who had immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1919. His father owned a local chain of gas stations, and his mother was a homemaker. He attended Catholic schools and Columbus North High School, played basketball and football, and collected comic books — especially Batman and Superman.
Early on, he began developing skills that would serve him well in his political career. In middle school, he started competing in speech contests; in his office at the Governor’s Residence, he displays the first of many trophies he won. In high school, he also got involved in student government and worked as a youth coordinator for the Democratic Party in Bartholomew County.
“The heroes of my youth were John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, so that drew me to Democratic politics,” he said. “But when I went off to college, I started to identify with the common-sense conservative ideas expressed by Ronald Reagan, and that drew me to the Republican Party.”
Pence studied history at Hanover College and later attended law school at Indiana University. In subsequent years, he would head a think tank focused on Indiana issues, syndicate a radio talk show statewide, get his own TV show on WNDY and finally launch his political career.
But before all that, he met Karen.
A Girl from Indianapolis
Before she was the first lady of the Hoosier state, Karen Pence worked as an elementary school art teacher and painter, a passion she now nurtures as an advocate for art therapy programs. A Broad Ripple native, she hadn’t strayed far from her childhood home to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in elementary education from Butler University.
She met the future governor just a few blocks from campus, at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, where she was playing in a guitar group. After church one day, he introduced himself by asking how to join the group — a ploy he could have backed up if necessary, he insists.
One day, after about nine months of dating, Mike suggested that they walk along the canal in Broad Ripple and feed the ducks. “I tore off the end of the bread and out popped a ring box,” Karen said. Mike had hollowed out both loaves of bread; the other one contained two plastic glasses and a miniature bottle of Champagne. They were married soon after, in 1985, and had a modest reception at a Speedway hotel. It was a perfect wedding, Karen says, except for the part when Mike’s brothers chucked him into the hotel swimming pool.
Early in their relationship, Mike had shared his political ambitions with Karen — specifically, that he hoped to run for Congress when he reached his 50s.
“We talked about a lot of stuff, because I wanted to know, ‘What are we talking about if we go down that path, and what are your dreams?’” she says. “But I kept thinking, ‘That’s way down the road.’”
But it wasn’t. In 1988, just a few years later, Mike jumped at an opportunity to run for Congress. He lost, ran again in 1990 and lost again.
Now, Karen says, “We really didn’t know what we were doing, and it was a good thing that we didn’t get elected until later, when we were both more mature.”
Instead, the couple focused on building a family. Children Michael, Charlotte and Audrey were all born within a three-year span. It would be more than a decade before Mike once again waded into political waters.
A Family in Washington, D.C.
Listening to the Pences talk about Mike’s political career, it is abundantly clear that they view themselves as a team. They often use the plural first-person pronoun: “We got elected,” “We had the privilege to serve.” They have been crafting that approach since 2000, when Mike first won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Raising three children, Mike and Karen faced a dilemma — to keep the children in Columbus or uproot them to Washington, D.C. In the end, it was Dan and Marilyn Quayle who advised them to stick together. And for six two-year terms, they did just that, striking a tenuous balance between family events and Mike’s responsibilities on Capitol Hill, which increasingly included leadership positions within the Republican Party.
“I feel like we had a pretty normal life,” Karen says “(The children) didn’t really know that their dad was that much of a celebrity until the governor’s race, and that was a little new for them, but they were so little back then that it didn’t affect them as much.”
Looking back on six terms in Congress, Mike says he is most proud of the fact that his family and his marriage grew stronger. The political achievements, he says, are secondary.
Empty-Nesters in the Governor’s Residence
When Mike and Karen began to discuss the possibility of a governor’s race in 2012, they stayed focused on how the decision would affect their family — even though all three children are now in college.
“That one took a lot of thought and talking with the kids and asking a lot of friends and advisers,” Karen says. “I don’t think we would have run for governor unless all five of us were on board, because it’s a lot different from Congress. We’re living in the Governor’s Residence, we’re in the spotlight a lot more, and we don’t have as much privacy. So, for us, we felt like we wanted the kids on board.”
With the support of his family, Mike entered the gubernatorial race, focusing his campaign on a “road map for Indiana” that emphasized employment, education and economic development. In November, he claimed victory over Democratic candidate John Gregg, although not by the enormous margins some pundits had predicted.
“I’ve long believed that states hold the key for really creating jobs and educational opportunities for people, much more than the federal government,” he says. “The opportunity to come home and help lead the state as governor was just a great privilege.”
A year into his term, the governor has earned accolades from fellow Republicans, who say his small-town Columbus roots are foundational to his political outlook.
“There is no better crucible to learn those fundamental precepts of good government — living within your means and providing opportunity to those willing to work for it — than Indiana’s small communities,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, a Republican who has known the governor since their law school days. “Personal integrity, standing by your word and giving a hand to those who need it is the small-town Main Street way, and Mike embodies those principles daily.”
State Rep. Milo Smith, a Republican who represents the Columbus area, said the governor’s focus on education is a testament to the strong educational system he observed and experienced in Columbus.
“Mike is doing a great job as governor,” he said. “Mitch Daniels was probably the most popular governor we’ve ever had, which makes it difficult for Mike to say, ‘This is the way I’m going to do it,’ but he is doing a great job, and he is well on his way.”
The state’s Democratic leaders also praise the governor’s leadership style, even as they object to his views on hot-button issues like Medicaid expansion, marriage equality and education reform.
“He is certainly a gentleman at all times, very courteous, very cordial, and he is easy to communicate with,” said Senate Minority Leader Timothy Lanane. “On policy matters, obviously, we don’t agree on very much, but we disagree in an agreeable fashion.”
Although pundits often finger Pence as a potential presidential candidate, for now he remains focused on Indiana.
“I haven’t spent one second thinking about anything other than the job that the people of Indiana elected me to do in 2012,” he says. “I get up every day and think about Indiana and think about how we can make Indiana the best place in America to live, to work, to grow a business, to start a business, to get a job, to go to school, to retire. And that’s enough.”
As Mike settles into his gubernatorial role, he and Karen are also settling into their home in the Governor’s Residence, which they share with cats Oreo and Pickle. Although they have demanding schedules, they still set Sundays aside for church and family, declining all public appearances except Indianapolis Colts home games and visits to various churches.
On one of their first Sundays in the Governor’s Residence, they visited their old stomping grounds at St. Thomas Aquinas — the church where Mike had introduced himself to Karen by feigning interest in the guitar group. During the service that morning, the priest asked visitors to stand and introduce themselves. Still unsure about how to handle their newfound fame, but guided by their small-town roots, the couple stood.
“We’re the Pences,” Mike said to the congregation, “and we’re new to the neighborhood.”