The business of being Indiana’s First Lady has Karen (Batton) Pence, Bishop Chatard High School Class of 1975, wearing a variety of hats. Now, as she supports her husband, Governor Mike Pence, in his run for vice president of the United States, the demands on her time will, undoubtedly, continue to grow.
Karen keeps life in balance by applying the advice she gives to others: Find a job that fits with your gifts and your passion, and you will honor God and be happy.
The mother of three spent 25 years as an art teacher in Indiana and Washington, D.C., before trading her art supplies for, among other things, historical dress that she often dons when visiting classrooms across the state as the official ambassador for Indiana’s Bicentennial Commission. In her role as First Lady, Karen is involved in a variety of diverse programs including serving as the honorary chair of the Art Therapy Initiative at Riley Children’s Hospital and as a member of the Riley Children’s Foundation board.
As the wife of Donald Trump’s running mate, Karen recognizes that her schedule may feel the impact of the presidential campaign, but she said that serving Indiana remains her priority.
“I am extremely honored to continue to touch lives of Indiana families through my initiatives, foundation and as Indiana’s Bicentennial Ambassador,” she said.
While the list of initiatives that Karen is involved with as First Lady is long, the classroom is a common denominator for many of her projects.
When I visit classrooms, my staff often has to say “half hour, then I’m pulling you out,” she laughed. “But it is really so much fun for me. I feel like every school has something they can brag about, something they are proud of that they are doing. I usually tell them to show me what they want to show me so that we can shine a spotlight on it.”
Her understanding of the power and value of art led her to be involved from inception with the art therapy program at Riley. While her husband was still in Congress, she worked to help raise money to hire two art therapists at Riley Hospital. Now, as First Lady, Karen is on a mission to raise a $1.2 million endowment to ensure that the Indiana hospital’s art therapy program will always be sustained.
“When we travel all over the world, I visit whatever art therapy program is going on” in that area, she said. “That is one of my favorite initiatives.” Back at home, Karen’s statehouse office is filled with artwork created by school children from throughout Indiana, revealing her commitment to fostering creativity in the classroom.
The First Lady says that because “nobody voted for me; nobody appointed me,” she stays out of the policy side of education. However, she recognizes that living with a teacher, and knowing how she feels about the work teachers do and the struggles many experience on the pay they receive, may have impact. She is very proud of the merit-pay bonus program that the Pence administration put into place, calling it a step in the right direction.
During the early days of Governor Mike Pence’s tenure, Karen recalls being inundated with requests to speak at events or champion various causes. Knowing she could not do it all, she followed the advice of a friend who suggested she start an event modeled after the First Lady’s Luncheon in Washington, D.C.
But Karen put her creative twist on the project. Using the luncheon as a fundraiser, she created the Indiana First Lady’s Charitable Foundation, a 501(c)3, which is now used to raise money to provide grants to projects in all 92 counties, enabling her to support many causes through one initiative. The foundation grants one large award annually, then gives smaller grants three times per year to other local organizations.
“Many times, the charities are created by someone who has taken a difficulty or trial in their own life and turned it into something great,” she explained. The money is important, she said, but the goal of the smaller $500 to $1,000 grants – the First Lady’s Foundation awarded 57 of these in June – is to draw attention to homegrown efforts across the state designed to encourage and support Indiana’s youth and families.
The governor’s residence is now an empty nest, with the youngest of the three Pence children preparing to graduate from college this year. While they’ve raised their children in the spotlight of politics, life for the Pence family, Karen said, is really very normal.
“On election night, when Mike was elected to be governor, the kids gave me three little silver frames where they each put their favorite piece of mom advice or quote,” Karen recalled. “Michael’s (the Pence’s oldest) was ‘I’m not going to let what’s going on out there affect what’s going on in here.’ We really try to keep family time protected.”
Karen would give graduates heading out into the world today the same advice she gives her own children. “It is important for them to understand you need to set aside family time, you need to set aside time for church and prayer, and a day off each week. That’s the way God intended it.
“You get so busy, and then you start to think that once I get my career started I’ll settle down – it doesn’t happen. You have to set those habits right away. That is one thing we’ve done in our crazy life is to set time aside.”
As if serving as Indiana’s first lady, ambassador for the state’s 200th birthday, and heading up many other causes hasn’t kept her busy enough, Karen took on the role of entrepreneur in 2015. She created, “That’s My Towel!” Charm Inc., a company that designs and sells charms – ID for your bath or beach towel – in a variety of themes and designs. She launched the business online (towelcharm.com), has a patent pending, and is negotiating the possibility of space in several larger stores.
“I was at an Indiana lake and got out of the water and someone had taken my towel, because all the towels matched. I didn’t know what I was going to do because I was freezing and didn’t have a towel!” she recalled. Again, her creativity kicked in. She drew up the idea for a charm holder and worked with a manufacturer in Kokomo who made the prototype.
“It has been a lot of fun. I keep a set in my suitcase and if we are going to be at a condo or lake house, I tell everyone in the family ‘this is your towel charm’ and I’m not going to wash your towels every day!”
The Class of ’75 celebrated its 40th reunion last summer, and Karen was among those who returned to Bishop Chatard for the occasion.
“What I really loved about the reunion is that they had it at the gym,” she said. “Many of us had not been back since we graduated, so to be able to go in and see the new things they are doing and some of the extensions was great.”
And after 40 years, she added, the cliques and social barriers of high school had evaporated and everyone just mixed and mingled. “That was fun.”
Looking forward, Karen sees the campaign ahead as both an exciting and a humbling time for her family.
“We feel truly blessed to be able to serve Hoosiers and be able to embark on our new journey through faith and love of our state and nation.”