By John Krull
Luke Kenley used to have this trick.
The longtime Republican state senator from Noblesville and powerful chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee — who is retiring from his legislative duties — knew what people saw when they looked at him. A sturdy man with a thick neck who moved deliberately and talked with an aw-shucks drawl, he understood that people might take him for a country boy who was a little bit slow on the uptake.
And he played into it.
His real name is Howard Kenley III, but he always encouraged people to call him “Luke.” And he loved to tell people that he was just a small-town grocer from Noblesville, where his family had owned and operated a small chain of stores.
Only when pressed would he acknowledge that he was a graduate of Harvard Law School or that he had consistently finished at the top of his class in officer candidate school.
I asked Kenley once, a long time ago, if he deliberately tried to get people to underestimate him.
“Not really,” he said.
His mouth stretched into a “who me?” smile.
“But if they do,” he drawled, still grinning, “well, that’s all right.”
He said it with such a twinkle in his eye that I couldn’t help myself. I burst out laughing.
Kenley just kept grinning.
The truth is that he always has been a complicated figure of surprising depths and intriguing contradictions.
He presents himself as a smiling, chuckling good old boy, but his early life was marked by tragedy. His mother died by suicide when he was 9 and the nature of her death was kept from him and his siblings for several years. While his father struggled to hold their lives together, the children were shipped off to live with other relatives.
Kenley told me that when he found out how his mother had died, the way she died didn’t matter much.
“What mattered,” he said, his head bowed and his voice lowered, “was she was gone.”
He persevered, though, and became a star performer in high school, president of his class and a mainstay of the football and basketball teams. He headed off to Miami University, did well and found himself accepted to Harvard Law.
Vietnam interrupted his plans to come back to Noblesville and practice law. He opposed that war for what he considered conservative reasons. He thought it hadn’t been properly declared and the reasons for fighting hadn’t been specified, but he also thought it was an American’s duty to serve.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army, was sent to officer candidate school and found himself, again and again, at the head of his class of candidates.
When Kenley left the Army, he came home to Noblesville, settled into a comfortable routine helping with the family business and serving as a city court judge.
He ran for the Senate in 1992 when a friend had to drop out of the race. He was in his mid-40s then, and ready for a challenge.
Once he got to the Senate, he became a force there immediately – and people stopped underestimating him in a hurry.
But the very quality that made him so formidable in the Senate – his fierce, inquisitive intelligence – also all but guaranteed that he never would climb higher than that in a Republican Party that had come to value unquestioning adherence to party positions on hot-button issues more highly than creative thought.
Luke Kenley announced a few days ago he was retiring from the Senate, after 25 years of service. He will leave on Sept. 30.
He’s left his mark on the state. He has been a principal architect of every budget for at least the past dozen years. For good or ill, he has shaped the Indiana in which we live.
I haven’t seen him that often in the past few years.
But when I do, he’s still the same Luke Kenley, with the same slow drawl and the same aw-shucks grin. He’s the same smiling figure encouraging everyone — daring them, actually — to think just a little bit less of him, to think that because he talks slow, he also thinks slow.
It’s a good trick.
Even if it hasn’t fooled anyone for years.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouse-File.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected]