The Mike Pence story: From a youth in Columbus to candidate for vice president

Note: This story was originally published on Jan. 13, 2013.

By Harry McCawley
The Republic

Mike and Mark Reardon lived short and difficult lives. Shortly after their births, the brothers were diagnosed with muscular dystrophy — a progressive neuromuscular disease that attacks the respiratory system.

Throughout their childhoods both were confined to wheelchairs. The disease restricted their physical movements. They needed help even getting dressed.

They had support, especially from their parents, John and Ellen Reardon, and their siblings, Tom and Shawn.

There was also another network, one put together by Maynard Noll, an auto dealer and longtime volunteer with the Easter Seals Society. In an effort to ease the stress on the Reardon family, Noll recruited several high school students who volunteered their time on a rotating basis. Each day, one or two of the students would go to the Reardon home and help get Mark and Mike ready for the day.

One of them was a young man who will be inaugurated as governor of Indiana Monday — Mike Pence.

“Actually, Mike inherited that role,” said his older brother, Ed, who works at Cummins Inc. “Our older brother, Greg, was the first to get involved, and when he graduated from high school, Mike took his place.”

The Reardon brothers died before they could reach adulthood — Mark in 1980 at the age of 15. Mike lived to graduate from Columbus North High School with his classmates in 1984. Less than two weeks later he died at the age of 18.

Mike Pence remained close to the Reardon family for years after the brothers died. He served as a pallbearer at their funerals. He delivered the eulogy at services for Ellen.

His involvement in helping the Reardon brothers was recounted by his mother, Nancy Pence Fritsch, during an interview, but it was presented almost as an afterthought. She talked about it from the perspective that such a service would have been expected in the Pence family.

Mike Pence was born June 7, 1959. He was the first of the Pence children to be born in Bartholomew County. His parents, Ed and Nancy Cawley Pence, had moved to Columbus only a few months earlier from Indianapolis.

Both parents came from humble origins in Chicago. Nancy’s father came to the United States from Ireland through Ellis Island. He was a bus driver in Chicago. Ed’s father worked in the Chicago stockyards.

The family’s first home in Columbus was in Everroad Park West.

“I guess you could describe it as modest at the time, although we never thought in those terms,” said the governor-elect’s brother, Ed. “It was just our home.”

The senior Ed had worked with Pure Oil Co. in Chicago and later with Marathon. In Columbus, much of his career was with Kiel Bros. Oil Co.

Mike is the third of four brothers. Greg and Ed preceded him, and Tom followed. Much later, two sisters — Annie and Mary Therese — would be added.

“In a way it was like our parents had two families,” Ed said in describing the age differences in the two sets of siblings. “We had an unwritten rule to defer to your older brother, but it wasn’t always followed.”

The “older” Pence family was active. Sometimes the brothers could be rambunctious.

One who observed that behavior close up was Jeff Brown, a close friend of Mike. “I grew up in a family of girls,” he said. “It’d be like going into another world when I’d visit Mike and see the brothers interact.”

The Pence brothers attended St. Columba Catholic School from the first through the eighth grades. It was at the diocesan school where Mike developed the trait that would serve him well in adulthood. He gave speeches.

“It shouldn’t have come as a surprise,” said Nancy. “He was always talking. What surprised me was how well he could talk in front of large crowds.”

The Pence family got its first inkling of what was to come when Mike was in the fifth grade and entered an oratorical contest.

“I believe it was sponsored by the Optimist Club, and Mike was competing against kids in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades,” his mother said. “When it came his turn, his voice just boomed out over the audience. He just blew everybody away. I had a hard time associating the boy up there speaking with our son.”

Mike won that first contest, but it was only the beginning. He followed a number of other pursuits in school. He wrestled at Columbus North, but public speaking was his first love.

One of those who noticed his ability was Debbie Shoultz, speech coach at Columbus North.

“I first encountered Mike in his sophomore year. At that time I was the assistant coach but moved up to the position of coach the next year,” she said. “It wasn’t just that it came naturally to him. He worked hard at it. He once told me that he was sort of a goof-off in junior high, but by the time he came to North he had developed a sincerity that showed in his speaking.”

It also showed in his record. In 1977 he took first place in the American Legion’s Indiana Oratorical Contest. Three months later he placed third in the National Forensic League speech tournament in Seattle.

The showing in Seattle was more remarkable because of a virus that infected several of the competitors. “Mike was on the verge of collapsing after every round,” Shoultz said at the time.

There was another quality shown by her student that became apparent to Shoultz — leadership.

“I think he became interested in politics in high school. He had come across a book on the Constitution. He read that book over and over, and it obviously had an influence on his life.”

Ironically, the book — “Growth and Development of the American Constitution” — was written by a former Columbus resident, Loren W. Noblitt, the son of a legendary teacher, Loren S. Noblitt, and nephew of Q.G. Noblitt, co-founder of Arvin Industries.

Shoultz also noted in Mike’s senior year another aspect of her student. “Even when he was a senior, he talked to his classmates about one day being president.”

Upon graduation from Columbus North in 1977 Mike was considering a career in broadcast journalism. He approached Columbus newscaster Sam Simmermaker for advice on choosing the best college to begin pursuit of that career.

“I remember that we talked about Indiana University because it was well-known for its journalism department,” Simmermaker recalled. “However, I also suggested that he look at some other colleges in the state, specifically Ball State and Hanover.”

Mike enrolled at Hanover College, where he not only pursued his interest in speaking but also underwent a spiritual transformation.

“Mike became deeply religious during that time,” his mother remembered. “At one point he was seriously considering entering the priesthood.”

The notion of becoming a Catholic priest passed, but the commitment to Christianity would only deepen in future years.

After obtaining a degree from Hanover, he entered law school and received his degree from Indiana University in 1986. A year later he made a decision that surprised even his family. He decided to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The decision not only surprised but angered some members of the family, particularly his father, Ed. At the time Mike was just beginning married life, having married Karen in 1985, and he would be competing against a veteran legislator in Rep. Phil Sharp, D-Ind.

“Ed was really upset about the decision,” Nancy said. “At first he was dead set against it, and he really grilled Mike about why he would want to do such a thing.”

The senior Pence even recruited help in making his case.

“It was over Christmas, and I got this call asking me to come over and help talk Mike out of his decision,” the younger Ed recalled. “We (father and son) both thought it was Don Quixote-ish and didn’t think he had a prayer.”

Apparently the would-be candidate was able to marshal his oratorical skills and change the minds of his father and brother.

“In the end Dad came around,” Ed recalled. “In fact he became a big supporter and was really helpful in coaching Mike on raising money for the campaign. He took Mike throughout the district and introduced him to all the acquaintances he had made in his business career. It was invaluable.”

The younger Ed believes it was his father’s philosophy that helped change his mind. “One thing Dad always preached to us was that we had to climb our own mountain.”

The elder Pence didn’t limit his help to fundraising. In April 1988, less than a month before the primary election, he arrived at his namesake’s home with a trunkload of campaign signs for Mike.

“He told me to get out in the district and put out those yard signs,” his son recalled. “He was really excited about how things were going for Mike.”

Ed never got to see his third son win his first election. On April 13, 1988, in the midst of a round of golf at Harrison Lake Country Club, he collapsed on the course. He was pronounced dead at Bartholomew County Hospital.

It was a poignant turn of events for the family. Ed remembered his own reaction several days after his father’s funeral.

“I came back to the house one day and saw those yard signs my father had left me,” he recalled. “I recruited my brother Greg, and we put every one of them out.”

Less than a month later Mike, in his first foray into politics, won the Republican Party’s nomination for the U.S. House seat in Indiana’s 2nd District.

He still faced a herculean task in ousting the veteran Sharp. In the end he failed in that quest but only by the narrowest of margins. He returned to the campaign trail two years later, intent on finishing what he had started over the Christmas holiday of 1987. The results this second time were very different. The Columbus native was trounced by Sharp after a bitter and divisive campaign, one for which he later apologized.

At that time, Mike appeared to have closed the door on a potential political career. Instead he became a radio talk show host, returning to a vocation he had pursued earlier. He developed a three-hour show that allowed him to express his viewpoints, especially on conservatism and Christianity.

The show proved to be a hit, and though its host was an unabashed conservative, even dedicated liberals felt comfortable talking with the Columbus native on the air. One Democrat who appeared was Gov. Evan Bayh.

“I remember that Mike had told him before they went on the air that he was going to be asking a lot of tough questions and probably put him on the spot,” Ed said. “I’m sure that Bayh was expecting some pretty tough questions about political philosophy.”

The questions were, indeed, tough for Bayh to answer, but they had nothing to do with political philosophy. The governor, an expectant father, was asked by Mike, already the father of three children, to define such paternal terms as “binky” (pacifier) and “woobie” (blanket).

Bayh failed the test, but the exchange served to humanize Mike in the eyes of his guest and his audience.

That ability to speak to an audience served the Columbus native well. Prior to the 2000 election he was given the opportunity to once again run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He was successful, launching a career that would eventually catapult him into the national spotlight and to the position he will assume Monday.

That, as they say, is the rest of the story.