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Mike Pence's South Side Roots: 'I Owe A Debt of Gratitude To Chicago'

By Heather Cherone | January 20, 2017 5:45am | Updated on January 20, 2017 8:42am
 The vice president-elect was in Chicago on Dec. 30 raising money for the Republican Party.
The vice president-elect was in Chicago on Dec. 30 raising money for the Republican Party.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

ENGLEWOOD — While the most famous Chicagoan to ever call the White House home will be moving out Friday, another politician with deep Chicago roots will get the keys to a house just down the road.

Michael Richard Pence, who will live on the Naval Observatory after he becomes the 48th vice president of the United States at noon Friday, might be known as the staunchly conservative former Indiana governor who grew up with a cornfield in his backyard, but his mom grew up near 55th and Honore streets.

"I really owe a debt of gratitude to Chicago that springs from my own personal history," he once said.

A few months before Pence was born in 1959, his parents, Edward and Nancy Cawley Pence, moved to Columbus, Ind., as the South Side — once home to immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Sweden — was transformed by the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South, prompting many white families to leave big cities.

But Pence's family returned often to the South Side, where his maternal grandfather, Richard Michael Cawley — who gave the future vice president his name — settled after immigrating from Ireland in 1921 at age 18 — landing first, as so many new Americans did, at Ellis Island in New York City.

Pence can recall the exact date the grandfather arrived: April 11, 1923, and said he was especially close with his grandfather, and credited their relationship with spurring him to declare in 2009 that he would be willing to strike a deal to reform the nation's immigration reform policy, putting him at odds with other Republicans.

"It may come as a surprise to you, but the bond my little family feels with Chicago is real, and it is personal," Pence said in December 2014, while speaking at the City Club of Chicago.

[City Club of Chicago]

For 40 years, Cawley drove a city bus for the CTA, retiring in 1975. He died in 1980.

Pence's mother, Nancy Cawley, graduated from Visitation High School, 900 W. Garfield Blvd., in 1950. The all-girls Catholic high school in Back of the Yards closed in 1983.

The vice president-elect's father, Edward Pence, was born in 1929, and went to Leo High School in Auburn Gresham. Pence's paternal grandfather worked in the Chicago stockyards.

Pence's father earned a Bronze Star in the Korean War. He died in 1988, after owning several gas stations in Indiana.

"I was born and raised by two big city kids down in a really small town in southern Indiana ... with a cornfield in the backyard," Pence said at the City Club.

Nancy Cawley's yearbook picture (center) during her junior year of high school in Chicago. [Visitation High School 1949 Yearbook]

Every Christmas, Pence and his five brothers and sisters would pile into the family's station wagon to make the long trip up U.S. 31 back to "the South Side of Chicago to hearth and home and family and friends," he said.

In the sole vice presidential debate against Democratic nominee Tim Kaine, Pence honored his uncle Philip Pence, who is a retired Chicago Police officer.

"He was my hero when I was growing up we would go to visit my dad's family in Chicago, my three brothers and I would marvel at my uncle when he would come out in his uniform, sidearm at his side," Pence said.

Until he was in college, Pence considered himself a Democrat, he has said — no doubt a legacy of the party's stranglehold in Chicago on Irish Catholic city workers.

Although he voted for former President Jimmy Carter in 1980 over Republican Ronald Reagan, Pence found himself inspired by the Republican president. While in college, Pence became an Evangelical Christian.

Pence — who has three children with his wife, Karen — made a name in politics first as a conservative radio and television talk show host from 1994-99 and then as a Congressman from 2000-12 before being elected Indiana governor.

Former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and his mother, Nancy Pence Fritsch. [Twitter/@GovPenceIN]

Pence's Chicago connections did not stop him from being a vocal critic of the city while governor.

Indiana business groups frequently ran ads that ask Illinois businesses if they're "Illinoyed by higher taxes?" Other billboards made fun of Illinois' lack of a state budget.

President-elect Donald Trump picked Pence as his running mate in July, seeking to capitalize on his relationships with Republicans in Washington and connections to the Christian right.

The vice president-elect still has family in Chicago, including his older brother, Gregory.

Pence's daughter Charlotte graduated from DePaul University in June 2016 with degrees in digital cinema and English.

Despite Pence's self-professed respect for Chicago — and warm feelings for its residents — he was greeted with protests during his last trip to his parents' hometown before becoming vice president.

President-elect Donald Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence celebrate their victory in Iowa in December 2016. [Facebook/Mike Pence]

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