COLUMBUS — In December 1980, 21-year-old Mike Pence walked into the living room of his parents’ spacious home and saw his grandfather, sitting on a couch, his eyes brimming with tears.
The old man, who had grown up in a two-room house in Tubbercurry, Ireland, had been struggling with health issues, and young Mike asked if his grandfather needed anything.
“He just shook his head, and his voice cracked ... and I said, ‘What’s wrong?’
“And he said, ‘I just never thought a child of mine would live in a house like this.’”
His grandfather passed away that Christmas Eve, but the moment illuminated in Pence’s mind what he had witnessed in his own home: the American Dream. It explains, in part, his dedication to creating growth and opportunities for people, he said.
“I believe in the unlimited potential of every person in this country,” he said.
Pence’s parents, both from working-class backgrounds, moved from Chicago to Indianapolis and to a typical middle-class neighborhood in Columbus.
“My folks often said that when we were growing up, we didn’t have two nickels to rub together. I know I slept in the same bed with my younger brother for the first year in his life. But I don’t ever remember feeling deprived of anything,” Pence recalled recently as he sat in a small room on the eastern side of the Indiana Statehouse, where he was inaugurated as Indiana’s 50th governor on Monday.
After a few years, the Pence family moved to a home on Hunter Place, in the upper middle-class Parkside neighborhood. Then, they moved into a significantly larger home a short distance away. Homes in that neighborhood today cost between $300,000 and $500,000.
“Dad and Mom just lived the American Dream,” Pence said.
He and his three brothers would tease their parents about moving into a large home after the boys had gone off to college, Pence said with a laugh.
But it was the home on Hunter Place, where Pence spent his years from kindergarten through high school, that proved most formative and where his dreams of politics awoke.
At about age 11, Pence made a time capsule, stuffing it with clippings about President John F. Kennedy, a great hero of his youth.
As a teenager, as his interest in politics grew, his father put him in touch with John Rumple, a local Democrat who later would run for attorney general. In 1975, with Rumple’s help, Pence said, he became the youth Democratic Party coordinator in Bartholomew County.
He got young people together, knocked on doors for local candidates and handed out pamphlets at the Democratic tent at the county fair.
Pence said that his neighborhood was a microcosm of the city and provided a rich experience in matters beyond politics.
Pence’s next-door neighbor on Hunter Place was Julius P. Perr, the late titan of innovation at Cummins Inc. who had fled Hungary during the revolution. Cummins has named its innovation award after Perr, who died in 2005.
“To grow up next door to ... an individual who was a historic figure in a historic moment in the life of his nation ... this is the kind of place that Columbus is,” Pence said.
“I got to learn what was best about small towns. I got to learn about the world by talking to my neighbors over the backyard fence. Made the best friends of my life to this day.”
One of those friends was Tom Hodek, who lived across the street from the Pences.
“Tom was one of those next-door neighbor friends who, you know, I’d walk in his house and open the fridge to see what was there. He’d walk in my house and open the fridge to see what was there.”
Hodek and Pence recall an idyllic and happy childhood, growing up in Parkside in the 1960s and 1970s. In the summers Hodek, Pence and others played pickup football in a nearby farm field (now the city’s soccer fields), competed in knock hockey through the local parks program and rode their bikes to Northside Drugs to buy candy, occasionally being chased by dogs.
In the winters, the kids would defend snow forts in their yards with a heavy arsenal of snow balls; and build model airplanes – or, as Pence puts it with self-deprecating humor: Hodek, who would become an engineer at Cummins, built model airplanes, while Pence simply tried.
“We had a lot of good times,” Hodek said. “A lot of fun.”
“It was just a great place to grow up,” Pence said.
Pence would challenge Hodek in discussions, but he said the two never talked about politics directly.
Nonetheless, Hodek said, Pence had a vision and knew early on that he wanted to serve and lead people.
“I had no doubt he would be successful,” Hodek said.
“Tom and I used to spend a lot of long hours sitting up in his bedroom talking about the future,” Pence said.
Beginning in grade school, at what was then St. Columba Catholic School, Pence, encouraged by one of his teachers, wrote his own speeches and won speech competitions.
Later, at Columbus North High School, another teacher, Debbie Shoultz, saw something in Pence and kept telling him to continue to develop his talent.
“Your ability to communicate ... she kept saying ... it’s something you have an obligation to develop,” he said.
On the high school speech team, which included Steve David, now an Indiana Supreme Court justice, he would “drive to some school week after week to a speech contest,” Pence said.
His speaking ability and his sense of humor made him fun to listen to and be around, Hodek said.
Those two attributes also increased his popularity in school, which was lacking, especially in junior high school. The St. Columba students spent only one year, ninth grade, at the then Northside Junior High School, meaning they had much less time than the other kids to bond with their classmates.
In high school, Pence said, he developed a broader range of friends — though almost no one recognized him when he returned for his junior year. He had lost 55 pounds that summer, and people walked up to him and asked, “Are you new?”
“People didn’t know who I was,” he recalled.
He had struggled with his weight for years, and over that summer a doctor finally put him on a strenuous program to lose weight. That weight loss ended his football career. Pence jokes that he was the fourth-string center on the ninth-grade football team.
In his senior year, Pence became class president, and, Hodek said, unlike others who simply ran for the prestige, Pence actually tried to change things for the better and organized events, such as a talent contest that he emceed.
Pence’s political views changed after high school. He attended Hanover College and Indiana University’s McKinney School of Law, graduating in 1986.
“After I went off to college and started to study American history and the American Constitution and think carefully about my philosophy of government, I started being drawn to ... common-sense conservatism.”
Pence also considered using his leadership and speaking abilities in the service of the Catholic Church. His upbringing at St. Columba, attending Mass twice a week and serving as altar boy, had a profound impact on him, he said. After graduating from Hanover, he met with priests in the Indianapolis archdiocese.
“My foundation in my life is my faith; my calling is leadership,” Pence said.
But he decided against priesthood in part because of another calling: family. Pence said he was convinced that eventually he would meet someone with whom he would build a family.
But his faith remains important to him. Pence reads the Bible almost every day and makes time for prayer and quiet reflection.
His fireplace is adorned with a plaque of Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.” His wife presented him with a framed version of the verse after they decided to sell their house, move their children and spend their life savings on a third run for Congress. Pence said the verse will hang in the governor’s mansion once the couple move.
And while they still have a home in Columbus, Pence said that with three kids in college, he did not know how long they would keep the Columbus home.
In any case, Pence said, his connection to his hometown will remain strong. His mother lives in Columbus, as do his brothers, Greg and Ed.
“Columbus will always be my home,” Pence said.