BILLINGS — Besides his official duties during a trip to Montana last week, United States Vice President Mike Pence took time to enjoy the outdoors, and he attended church in a scenic setting.
That’s according to locals who confirmed his whereabouts for parts of Saturday and Sunday.
Pence arrived in Billings Friday at 1 p.m. and spent the afternoon at the Absaloka Mine on the Crow Reservation. Friday evening, he spoke on behalf of Republican U.S. House candidate Greg Gianforte at a campaign rally at the Montana Pavilion at MetraPark.
But over the weekend, Pence took some time off. He went fishing at a pond in Fishtail, made a stop at the tiny town’s store, and then on Sunday attended Nye Community Church.
The common denominator of the weekend events was Dr. Lawrence Klee, a Billings urologist who has a cabin in the Nye area. According to the Billings Clinic website, Klee earned his undergraduate and medical degrees in Indiana, where Pence grew up and served as governor before becoming vice president.
Mel Askins, who lives in Fishtail, hosted the Klees, Pence and his wife, Karen, and their son and future daughter-in-law Saturday afternoon. Askins has a half-acre pond in his backyard where he stocks rainbow trout.
“They were going to fish on the Stillwater, but it was high,” Askins said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “So Dr. Klee came out three to four days before the Saturday fishing trip and met me and asked if he could fish the pond.”
A mutual acquaintance told Klee about the pond, Askins said. He readily agreed to host the fishing party.
Pence, accompanied by a large retinue of Secret Service, arrived at Askins' home around 1 p.m. Pence, who brought his own fly fishing rod, came dressed ready to fish in a fishing vest, insulated pants and a baseball cap.
“The vice president had better luck than anybody on the pond,” Askins said. “He caught four fish. He’s an accomplished fly fisherman.”
Askins shared a variety of flies with Pence, recommending an ice cream cone nymph, which the vice president used. The pair didn’t talk politics, Askins said.
“I did say to him, ‘I bet you’re happy you’re not in Washington,' and he certainly concurred with that,” he said.
Before the group departed, Askins had one last exchange with Pence.
“I said, ‘God bless you and your efforts,’” Askins said. “And he looked me in the eye and said, ‘God bless you.’”
The group’s next stop was at the Fishtail General Store. Owner Katy Martin said members of the Secret Service checked out the store in advance of Pence’s visit.
But when the vice president stopped by, Martin was outside talking to a friend and she didn’t see him when he entered with several other men.
“He looked like every other fisherman who walks in the door,” she said.
Martin went back in the store to wait on the small crowd. Pence, who had shopped for a Mother’s Day card, introduced himself.
“I said, ‘I thought you looked familiar,’” Martin said. “He was very humble, very pleasant. You would not know he was vice president of the United States.”
Pence wasn’t at the store for long, she said. But before he left he told her, “this is my kind of store.”
“It was a pleasant experience,” Martin said. “I was really impressed.”
The Rev. Paul Lindley didn’t get any notice of the vice president’s impending visit on Sunday morning. But he had a clue.
“There’s nothing secret in the Nye valley,” he said. “So I did get a phone call message that said, ‘heads up, we might have somebody important in church tomorrow.’ I thought, what’s the chance it will be the vice president?”
The nondenominational church averages about 75 people each weekend. About 90 percent are locals, including some who have cabins as second homes in the area.
The Klees attend the white clapboard church when they stay in Nye, said Lindley, pastor of the Nye church for the past 30 years. About a half hour before the service started, Secret Service agents arrived at the church to check it out.
“Straight up at 10 a.m., the motorcade pulls into the parking lot, cop cars, a whole line of SUVs with blacked-out glass and the Columbus ambulance,” he said. “They had a regular parade going.”
The motorcade stopped in front of the church and Lindley walked out to greet the visitors. The vice president stepped out of one of the SUVs, helped his wife out, and introduced himself and his wife to the pastor.
Lindley wanted to double-check one thing with Pence before they entered the church. Normally at one point during the service, congregants stand and greet each other, and Lindley wanted to make sure that was OK with Pence.
“He said, 'we’re here to worship with you, and whatever you do, do it and we’ll deal with it,'” Lindley said.
When it got to that point in the service, Lindley suggested the 100 or so people at church that morning greet their neighbors, but not rush up to Pence and his wife.
“You don’t want to crush the man,” Lindley said, kidding. “The people were, I felt, very controlled. And he was so gracious.”
Since it was Mother’s Day, the pastor shared a sermon on the importance of mothers and the impact they make on their children, their neighbors and their communities. Having written his sermon beforehand, he told the congregation that the world doesn’t “need any more secret service Christians.”
“I looked to the back of the church and there were two Secret Service agents, 6-foot-5-inch guys with their arms crossed,” he said. “I said, ‘no offense guys.’”
After the service ended, Lindley asked the vice president if he would consent to a photo outside with the congregation. Pence agreed, and stood in the middle of the group, with the Beartooth Mountains in the background.
The church posted the photo on its Facebook page. Normally in a week, the web page might get 50 to 100 hits in a week, but since Sunday, it’s had 15,000 and been shared about 150 times.
Lindley called the experience a “once-in-a-lifetime thing to meet the vice president” and an incredible opportunity to preach to him.
“It was absolutely an unexpected blessing for me and the people up here,” he said.