Mike Pompeo never dreamed he would be America's top diplomat.
Just three years ago, brandishing his investigation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's handling of the attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, Pompeo won a fourth term to serve the Wichita-area 4th Congressional District where he had settled in the late 1990s to forge a business partnership with friends from West Point.
Things were about to get interesting.
Donald Trump's defeat of Clinton in the 2016 presidential race opened the door for Pompeo's ascension to CIA director and, last year, the opportunity to lead the State Department.
"My life certainly has changed," Pompeo said. "I think no one ever plots out a course that would lead you to this."
As secretary of state, Pompeo holds the highest-ranking U.S. government office of any Kansan since President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Responsible for brokering trade and peace deals on an international stage, Pompeo is The Topeka Capital-Journal's choice for a Kansan of the Year.
"Every day," Pompeo said, "I feel the responsibility to serve the American people, to work to achieve diplomatic outcomes that keep them safe and more secure and allow our economy to continue to grow."
Pompeo’s friends praise his work ethic, loyalty, faith and data-driven approach to solving problems.
Brian Bulatao called Pompeo "a great simplifier" and said his leadership skills were evident when they attended West Point together more than three decades ago. Bulatao was one of the partners who formed Thayer Aerospace with Pompeo in Wichita, and he followed Pompeo to posts at the CIA and State Department.
"Pompeo is one of those people who can look at a very complex, very dynamic situation and get to the heart of what is the most critical thing that we need to answer in order to achieve the outcome, and that is a gift that not many people have," Bulatao said.
As a member of Trump’s Cabinet, Pompeo has been a lightning rod for criticism. Testimony during impeachment hearings highlighted Pompeo’s knowledge of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine and the president's efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating a political rival.
Pompeo said his message to critics is that the administration delivers on promises, such as reducing the United States' footprint in the Middle East, recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and securing better trade agreements.
"It always hearkens back to what my folks told me — just work hard, tell the truth, be faithful to the things you know are right, and a lot of days good things will happen," Pompeo said. "I hope I'll be remembered as somebody who cared deeply about the people of the State Department and who was focused each and every day on delivering good foreign policy outcomes for the American people through his service. If that much is something that I've been able to accomplish serving President Trump and America, I'd be happy with that."
Bulatao arrived at West Point and stepped on the bus with all the other new cadets. He had no idea where he was going.
The guy sitting across from him — brown hair, decent tan, probably from the West Coast — didn’t know either. Bulatao asked the fellow cadet if he had ever been here before.
"This is my first time east of the Mississippi," Pompeo replied.
Bulatao remembers Pompeo as the kind of plebe, or first-year cadet, who volunteered to help with laundry duty, despite the associated risk of being hazed by upperclassmen. As an engineering major, Pompeo was the student who would rather spend Friday night working on a project that wasn't due for three weeks than go to Eisenhower Hall to socialize. And Pompeo spent Saturdays in the gym trying to perfect the technique needed to complete a difficult indoor obstacle course that was tied to his grade. He graduated first in his class.
"He's going to work hard," Bulatao said. "He may not be the most talented at something, but no one is going to outwork him. And by the way, most of the time, he is the most talented on things, certainly from an intellectual standpoint."
Pompeo attributes his work ethic to the values instilled by his parents. Pompeo grew up in California but spent summers with family in Kansas, his mother's home state. Joining the ranks of other women of her generation, she had worked at the Boeing facility in Winfield during World War II.
After serving in the Army, getting a law degree from Harvard and spending several years at a D.C. law firm, Pompeo would return to Kansas and, in a way, follow in his mother's footsteps.
Bulatao, Pompeo and two other friends from West Point pooled resources and raised funding to purchase several Wichita companies involved with the manufacture of airplane parts for Boeing, Cessna and Beechcraft — forming Thayer Aerospace.
"They chose a tough business," said Tom Page, a Wichita banker who worked with Pompeo's future wife, Susan. "The aerospace segment of the economy is incredibly competitive and incredibly cyclical."
Pompeo married Susan in 2000 and took on a prominent roll at Eastminster Presbyterian Church, where he served as deacon and Sunday school teacher.
Lynda Carrier-Metz served with Pompeo at the church, delivering meals and studying the Bible together. She appreciated that Pompeo and his friends could have gone anywhere they wanted to start a business but chose Kansas.
Her oldest son learned about high expectations and work ethic when, as a middle schooler, Pompeo hired him to paint a fence.
"Mike would come out and critique how much white got on a piece of wood," Carrier-Metz said. "And if you talked to my son, he would always bring that up when we're talking about Mike because, you know, that was one of the best work experiences you can have."
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks accelerated an economic downturn in the aviation industry. Two of the partners left, but Pompeo and Bulatao remained at Thayer for a few more years to "see it through," Bulatao said. They sold the company, which became Nex-Tech Aerospace, in 2006.
Pompeo turned his attention to Republican politics, helping a city council candidate before seizing an opportunity to run for an open congressional seat.
Making an impact
A few months into President Barack Obama's administration, Pompeo decided to run for Congress.
"America was headed in the direction that we didn't think made sense for our family and for the people of Kansas," Pompeo said. "I thought we might be able to make a difference and have an impact."
In 2010, Pompeo defeated state Sen. Jean Schodorf and Wichita businessman Wink Hartman in the GOP primary, then beat Democrat Raj Goyle to secure his first term.
Former Sen. Bob Dole, the World War II veteran from Kansas who held office in D.C. for 35 years, became a friend and mentor.
"In the many facets of his life, Mike has consistently demonstrated his strong commitment to Kansas and to the United States," Dole said. "He continues to make our home state proud."
When Trump offered Pompeo the opportunity to become secretary of state, Carrier-Metz said, Pompeo talked to every living person who previously held the position, including Clinton.
"He came at it with a service and loyalty to his country, not a political task," she said.
Pompeo said he is proud of the work he has done within the State Department to ensure employees receive training. He said the administration's foreign policy achievements — such as ensuring Israel can defend itself and pushing back against the Islamic Republic of Iran to raise the cost of its terror campaign around the world — will make a lasting difference.
He is optimistic that trade negotiations with China will lead to a better deal for Kansans.
"All President Trump has ever asked for is that there'd be fair, equitable, reciprocal trading arrangements where if there was a tariff on our goods, we'd have a tariff on theirs," Pompeo said. "We're happy to make the tariffs all zero. And I'm very hopeful that for the first time an American president will protect the American people from the unfair trade acts — the theft of intellectual property, the forced technology transfer — that has harmed Kansans and people all across America for far too long."
Pompeo's leadership style stands in sharp contrast to Trump’s impulsive nature and attention-grabbing rhetoric, but the secretary remains fiercely loyal to the president.
"I know him well enough," Page said, "that he must just have to go for a walk once in a while."
Pompeo can’t escape an interview without being pressed on his plans for the future. Many in the political world believe he eventually will enter next year’s U.S. Senate race, where he would become the immediate favorite to win a crowded Republican primary.
"I'm focused on what I'm doing and intend to continue to do this as long as President Trump wants me to be his secretary of state," Pompeo said. "Beyond that, I haven't given my life after this role a whole heck of a lot of thought. I'm a faithful man. That the good Lord will find a good next task for me I'm confident."