High school classmates saw Pence’s leadership 40 years ago

Governor Mike Pence (WISH Photo)

COLUMBUS, Ind. (AP) — Classmates who traveled the halls of Columbus North High School in 1977 didn’t know then that one of them would one day hold the second highest office in the United States.

But a few of them suspected Vice President-elect Mike Pence might be headed toward national office someday even as they voted him North’s senior class president that year.

Bob Haddad Jr., now general manager of Harrison Lake Country Club, was one of Pence’s acquaintances who voted for him for senior class president.

“Everybody did,” Haddad Jr. said of his classmates. “We knew even back then.”

Forty years ago, classmates knew Pence as a teenager whose path was on the straight and narrow, guided by a strong family influence and religious faith that he relied on then and now.

“Mike was just one of those guys,” Haddad Jr. said. “Family was important, faith was important. Mike was very grounded back then.”

On the cover of the “1977 Log,” the North yearbook, a small yellow campaign ticket shows a photo of Pence, with dark, curly hair looking off into the distance, with the words “Vote Pence.”

The cover also features a “Coors” bottle label, a plane baggage claim ticket, cherry Lipsmacker lip gloss, Bull Dogs shirts and hats and a McDonald’s french fry holder — all remembrances of a time four decades ago in Columbus, then a smaller city of about 30,000.

“He had a good head on his shoulders,” Haddad said of Pence’s focus in high school. “He was a fun guy to be around, but he was focused — something a lot of us didn’t do. I was more focused on fun.”

Photos in the yearbook show Pence in many leadership roles, often emceeing high school events — some of them serious, and some of them less so.

One yearbook photo shows Pence at the podium leading a standing ovation for fellow student Eddie Jefferson, who was presented an award during a school convocation. Another shows him in a sport coat and open-collared shirt, microphone in hand, announcing talent show winners.

And then there is Pence, microphone in hand again, maintaining a straight face as he talks with two male classmates during a basketball halftime show. The two guys are wearing cheerleading outfits and wigs and used basketballs under their sweaters to appear, well, more cheerleader-like.

Two of Pence’s closest friends in high school remain among his closest friends today — Vic Thompson, an engineer who lives in the Chicago area, and Jeff Brown, of Columbus, who owns Travel Indiana LLC and TraveliN magazine.

Thompson lived a few blocks from North High School when growing up in Columbus and met Pence when both were in junior high. He recalls bonding with Pence as eighth-graders at a Hanover College basketball camp, where neither were finding much success with Indiana’s favorite sport.

“The two of us sort of gravitated together because we were the two worst players,” he said. “We spent a lot of time hanging out and going to the pool and trying not to learn how to play basketball.”

Later, they would team up again on North’s speech and debate team, where Pence excelled and Thompson looked on with respect.

“You could tell early he (Pence) had a gift for oratory,” his friend said. “I went on to be an engineer. I’m a better speaker than most engineering people, but I couldn’t hold a candle to Gov. Mike Pence.”

At North, Thompson said he and Pence hung around with an easygoing group of friends who were more focused on school than competing themselves in athletics.

They would go to basketball games and sit together, cruise around Columbus in their cars and stop at the A&W Root Beer stand on 25th Street, Thompson said.

Describing Pence as someone who always got along with people well, whether athletes or students in shop class, Thompson said his friend was also self-deprecating and blended in seamlessly through different groups throughout the school.

“We were the anti ‘players,'” he said. “Not too many girls paid attention to us dorky guys. The girls went for the jocks.”

Thompson was among the leaders of a prank by the Class of 1977 to paint a large green and blue “77” on the school’s smokestack above a red, white and blue “76” painted by the previous senior class.

Thompson remembers the entire goal was getting the “77” above the “76,” and it took some really tall ladders from a student whose father was a contractor in order to accomplish it.

“But I don’t remember Mike being a part of that operation,” he said.

Not only was Pence a good speaker, but he demonstrated artistic ability in high school — an outlet for humor, classmates said.

“He drew silly cartoons for the newspaper,” Thompson said.

Pence created a cartoon character called Mortimer, an “Everyman” sort who got into all kinds of trouble.

Thompson admitted it might of been a little alter ego to Pence’s reputation as a dependable leader for the school.

“Even at an early age, he had a bigger plan for himself, unlike most of us who were happy to make it to the next weekend,” Thompson said. “He was thinking about what he wanted to be and aspired to be a leader even then.”

Brown described the depictions of Pence behind the microphone at many high school events as a demonstration of early talent.

Meeting in a study hall when the two were sophomores, the two traveled with the same group throughout high school. Among that group were Pence’s friends from his neighborhood near Parkside school and former classmates from his Catholic school upbringing in Columbus.

One thing most people don’t know about Pence is that he has an incredible sense of humor, Brown said.

“He would come over to our house and sit down with my mom and dad, and he’d do imitations of his grandfather who lived in Ireland,” Brown said.

“He had a wicked Irish accent,” Brown said of Pence’s imitation. “He could have been a standup comedian. He’d have my mom in stitches.”

Even today, Brown said Pence’s sense of humor can be disarming even for the vice president-elect’s critics.

“As a public official, he’s careful about that, but he can be absolutely hilarious when he wants to be,” said Brown, whose friendship with Pence was so close that the two were groomsmen in each other’s weddings.

Brown particularly remembers political discussions Pence had with Brown’s father, who was a staunch conservative Republican while at the time, Pence was a young Democrat. The two had spirited conversations about politics and World War II.

“He spoke at Dad’s funeral. It was just incredibly generous of him to do that while he was a congressman. He had a great relationship with my parents and they loved talking to him and hearing his stories.”

Brown noted Pence has been good at staying in touch with friends in Columbus that he grew up with.

Rick L. Johnson, who created Johnson Ventures jointly with his late father, Dick L. Johnson Sr., said the Johnson and Pence families were linked long ago through the oil business. Dick L. Johnson Sr. and Ed Pence both worked in the oil business as their sons were growing up.

Johnson said he tagged along a little bit with Pence and Brown, who he described one of Pence’s closest friends, and was sometimes among the group that would cruise around in cars.

Like other classmates, Johnson said Pence was known for his speaking skills and it was evident he had political ambitions, even in high school.

Now when Johnson watches Pence on television, he said it brings it closer to home that someone who grew up in Columbus is now speaking on a world stage.

“When I look at the news, I look at it a little differently. When I hear him describe what he’s doing, it’s more tangible to me,” Johnson said.

Knowing that Pence is from Columbus gives listeners an insight into who he is and where he comes from, Johnson said.

“We know the way he thinks because we know him,” Johnson said.

This year, the North Class of 1977 is planning its 40th class reunion, and Diane Hawes, another classmate of Pence, hopes the vice president will attend.

“Mike was at the last one (reunion) when he was running for governor,” said Hawes, whose mother is former Columbus Mayor Nancy Ann Brown Poynter. “We’ve all been talking and laughing and wondering if the Secret Service would let him come. It’s kind of surreal.”

Watching Pence take the oath of office for vice president, Brown said it will be a momentous occasion for a guy who has worked hard his whole life and is so deserving.

“He’s always had political ambitions and worked hard at it. I think God poured out His blessings on him, and his family. (Wife) Karen (Pence) is a big part of this — she was just the perfect person — very supportive of him. His entire family is supportive of him. You have to have that to be successful.”

Brown described Pence as the kind of politician everyone wants — someone with a lot of integrity.

“You may not always agree with him, but you know where he stands,” Brown said of his friend. “He’s the real deal.”

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