He had been on the sidelines as the leader of the state or a U.S. senator met with residents, made big announcements or simply stopped for a bite to eat.
Still, when the reaction was aimed at Eric Holcomb, he was taken aback.
Just two weeks after being sworn in, the new governor experienced the respect that everyday Hoosiers reserve for their governor and what they expect from him. He’d spent the day in Princeton, a community in southwestern Indiana, where Toyota was announcing new jobs. The announcement was the first time he and one of his assistants and a state police officer had hit the road to head to a community for an event.
The three had stopped at Chick-fil-A in Terre Haute to get a cup of coffee. Holcomb was standing in line and the manager came out and introduced himself. Holcomb remembered his name as he recounted the story.
He told the manager it was nice to meet him, and the man had a question.
“He said, ‘Were you in a Chick-fil-A yesterday?’ And I thought for a second because they’ve all kind of blurred and I said, ‘Matter of fact I was.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I got a text from the general manager up there. It was by the Pyramids up in Indianapolis,’” Holcomb said.
That’s when it hit him.
“You lose your anonymity or your privacy,” Holcomb said. “And so, even the people that don’t come up to you see you as the governor, not as Eric anymore.”
And he isn’t complaining. Just weeks into his term in office, it wasn’t the tactics of legislators, the harried schedules or the enormity of the budget that had surprised Holcomb. It was the reactions of and interactions with Hoosiers.
“It’s an honor to serve,” Holcomb said. “You’re the governor to that person you’re seeing out on the road.”
He had worked for Mitch Daniels from the start of his campaign in 2003 until he left office in 2011. He was chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Dan Coats. He was lieutenant governor under Mike Pence. He had seen how they were recognized and approached.
“But when it’s you, it’s a little different,” Holcomb said.
Gone are the days of making a five-minute stop at the grocery store to get bananas. Instead, you hear from the clerk or another shopper, and get a chance to say hello to a resident.
So far, he’s been methodical about remembering what residents are telling him, taking notes and following up.
That day in Princeton offered another example. He stopped at Dick Clark’s Restaurant, a local diner, for a bite to eat. A man recognized him and came to his table.
“He said, ‘Yeah, I got something I want to talk to you about.’ I said, ‘I’m all ears and I’ll take notes,’” Holcomb said.
And take notes he did. The man had a concern about duck season starting too early in Indiana.
“He was serious,” Holcomb said. “And I’ve got the notes. They’re in my wallet. And you learn about the migratory patterns and the farming has affected the bird season in the state of Indiana.”
“If I’m not out and about and accessible, I don’t know that.”
He’s not the expert on hunting seasons, and those types of changes aren’t what he is focused on during his first months in office. But the head of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources should get the feedback from the diner Holcomb met, he said.
“It’s a very educational process every minute of the day, which, if you like to learn, this is the job for you,” Holcomb said.
“The good news is I’m being informed by so many citizens from all different walks of life.”