INDIANAPOLIS – Karen Pence has jumped headfirst into being Indiana’s next first lady.
The longtime art teacher immediately took on the task of planning all the inaugural events. She also is shaping her platform and making plans to settle into the official residence.
Our noses are above the water. We’re starting to tread, she said of the whirlwind since her husband, Mike Pence, was elected governor about a month ago. It’s all coming together.
Karen Pence, 55, is relying heavily on advice from a unique sorority of other first ladies, including Susan Bayh, Judy O’Bannon and outgoing first lady Cheri Daniels.
They all say the same thing – be yourself. And Daniels says there is no right or wrong way to do the job.
She had to warm up to the role before embracing it – slowly adding more events and speeches.
I felt very overwhelmed, and I just wasn’t sure what to do with it, she said. The beauty of it is it’s yours to mold. There is no job description, and everybody does it their own way.
Daniels focused on literacy and heart disease and became the face of the Indiana State Fair.
After I got out there and gave a couple of speeches and found people were so kind and happy to have me there, I realized it was going to be OK, she said. My role was nonpolitical. I was an ambassador.
Karen Pence is focused on her first lady duties, which are always behind her duties as a mom, which of late have included helping her youngest fill out college applications.
Hoosiers will have at least four years to get to know the couple and their three children – Michael, Charlotte and Audrey.
Karen Pence grew up in the Broad Ripple area of Indianapolis and went to college at Butler University, where she discovered a love of art to go with her love of teaching and children.
Even now she does watercolors in her free time, including a gift to her husband of the Indiana Statehouse on Election Night. She taught for about 25 years – taking off nine years as a full-time mom. And she stopped last year to help campaign.
Her platform is still jelling but she knows it will include kids and art.
I would like to spotlight the amazing kids we have here, Karen Pence said.
Daniels warns her not to spread herself too thin, though.
Instead of trying to do everything, pick a few things that really mean something to you and go with those, she says. When you lend your name to a handful of things, it’s a lot more powerful.
The Pence family will live about a block away from where Karen and Mike first met years ago at church.
Mike Pence highlighted their first date ice skating in a campaign ad, but Karen Pence almost melts recalling his proposal.
They had been dating about eight months when she started to get the feeling an engagement ring was coming. She made a proactive decision in her mind that she would say yes, even buying him a gold cross with Yes engraved on it.
Then a month later they were celebrating their nine-month anniversary, and she told him she wanted to feed the ducks on the canal.
So Mike Pence got two large loaves of bread and hollowed one out first for a small bottle of champagne. That second he inserted the ring box so that as she was breaking off the bread for the ducks, the box would fall into her hands.
It worked like a charm, and she said yes, giving him the cross she had been carrying around.
The couple even shellacked the remaining bread. They still have it, too.
The Pences had kids later in life because they didn’t think they originally could. Their son came first in 1991 after the couple had consulted a fertility doctor.
Karen Pence then had two daughters rather quickly. The second daughter was such a happy surprise that Karen took three pregnancy tests to confirm.
She is looking forward to having all three children home for the holidays – two are at college now – before the inaugural activities kick off in early January.
She said her favorite Christmas tradition is watching Mike Pence read a pop-up edition of ’Twas the Night Before Christmas to his kids on Christmas Eve. They even mark the time in the book every year, noting sometimes it’s at 9 p.m. and sometimes it’s at 2 a.m.
After Christmas, though, it will be back to the task of becoming Indiana’s next first family.
At the inaugural ball, Karen Pence will wear a gown made by the woman who also sewed her wedding dress and later revamped it for a vow renewal. She won’t give anything away except to say it incorporates Indiana colors of blue and gold.
We want something for everyone, she said of the inaugural activities. (Mike) is busy getting ready to be governor. It’s my baby.
Karen PenceAge: 55
Family: Married 27 years to Gov.-elect Mike Pence; three children: Michael, 21, Charlotte, 19, and Audrey, 18
Education: Graduated Butler University in 1978 with degree in elementary education with minor in art
Career: Longtime art teacher, mostly in elementary grades; stopped teaching last year to help her husband run for governor