AUSTIN, Texas — In the late 1970s, as he approached his 27th birthday, Rick Perry ended a globe-trotting life as an Air Force pilot and headed home to help work the family farm in a stretch of west Texas sometimes called the "Big Empty."
It was the beginning of an introspective period for the young Texas A&M graduate, and it eventually became clear that other horizons beckoned beyond the tiny community of Paint Creek, Texas. For a while, he considered a possible career as a commercial airline pilot, but he ultimately chose the path traveled by generations of his forebears.
Along with farming, politics seemed to be in the family DNA. Perry's great-great-grandfather, a Confederate veteran, was a state legislator in the 1890s. His father and great-grandfather served as county commissioners.
Rick Perry's opportunity came in 1983, when an area legislative seat opened up. After securing the blessings of his wife, Anita, an energized Perry relentlessly pursued the job, campaigning across the 190-mile-long district in his 1952 Super Cub airplane. He vanquished other contenders without a runoff and was on his way to Austin as a freshman legislator in 1985.
Those who've watched Perry's ascent from rookie lawmaker to Texas' longest-serving governor describe that race as an early example of one of Perry's defining traits: an unbending drive to get what he goes after, whether the goal is becoming an Eagle Scout or the president of the United States.
"He's as focused as anybody I've ever seen," said Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp, who's known Perry since they were A&M classmates and who later lost to Perry in a 1998 race for lieutenant governor. "Nobody is going to outwork that boy."
Regardless of what happens in the presidential race, James Richard Perry, now 61, already has left an indelible imprint on Texas. Undefeated in nine races, including that first legislative contest in 1984, Perry served six years in the state House of Representatives, eight years as state agriculture commissioner and nearly two years as lieutenant governor, and he's been governor for 11 years. In 1989, the former conservative Democrat switched allegiance and helped Republicans become the state's dominant political party.
Perry became governor on Dec. 21, 2000, after predecessor George W. Bush won that year's presidential election. His record tenure has made him a strong governor in a constitutionally weak office, enabling him to name appointees to every board and commission and push much of his conservative agenda through a Republican-led legislature.
Assessments vary widely on what Texas has become after more than a decade under Perry. Supporters describe the state as an economic powerhouse that leads the nation in job creation, a record that Perry often touts as a presidential candidate.
Conversely, critics say his tenure has been marked by "crony capitalism" that benefits his wealthy contributors, and that he's failed to fully address pressing needs in social services, health and education.
On a personal level, even detractors acknowledge that the former Texas A&M cheerleader is an engaging extrovert who — as Sharp put it — is "hard not to like."
Perry's son, Griffin, describes his father as "a pretty normal guy" who has a good sense of humor, loves to take family photos, reads military history and got hooked on the TV series "Lost." When he was growing up, Griffin Perry said, his father encouraged him to follow in his footsteps to become an Eagle Scout and "made a point to be there at all the important events."
Anita Perry, the daughter of a country doctor, who met her husband of 29 years when they were teenagers in rural Haskell County, recalls that it was young Rick Perry's smile that first attracted her to him. And, she added, "He still has that smile."
The governor and first lady are living in a taxpayer-financed rental mansion southwest of downtown Austin while the fire-damaged official governor's mansion is undergoing renovation.
When her husband isn't campaigning or attending to state duties, she said, life in their household is fairly routine, spent on things such as paying bills, exercising, playing with the dog or talking to their children.
"We're just like any other family," she said. In their years together, she said, Rick Perry has remained essentially unchanged. "He's a solid, conservative principled man. He's honest. He's fun. . . . He's a great dad, and a wonderful husband."
The state's 47th governor often cites two major influences that have helped shape his values: his Christian faith and his upbringing in a rural pocket of America that emphasizes hard work, church and family.
He attended a small Methodist church in Paint Creek as a boy and now worships at Austin's Lake Hills Church, an evangelical congregation affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Perry's Christian beliefs — which he's described as his "walk of faith" and "the most important journey of my life" — drew national attention shortly before his August entry into the presidential race, when he hosted a revival-like day of prayer and fasting that drew thousands of worshippers to Houston's Reliant Stadium.
On the campaign trail, Perry warmly recalls growing up in Paint Creek, a small community in the cotton and wheat fields of Haskell County, about 160 miles west of Fort Worth. His parents, Ray and Amelia Perry, were tenant farmers on a swath of land that they began to develop after Ray Perry returned home from World War II. The family lived in a 1920s bungalow-style house that had no indoor plumbing for the first five years of Rick Perry's life. Amelia Perry sewed clothes for the future governor and his older sister, Milla.
Back then, he was Ricky Perry. Friends from the community describe him as a high-energy youngster who seemed to excel at everything he tackled. He was devoted to scouting, quarterbacked the six-man football team and participated in activities such as 4-H.
"It was a great place to grow up. Wonderful people out there," he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I tell folks, other than coincidental things in life, I could just as well be working in a feed store in Haskell County."
After his 1972 graduation from Texas A&M, Perry was commissioned in the Air Force, flying C-130 tactical airlift missions across the United States, the Middle East and Europe. John Petro, a San Antonio-area resident who was a member of Perry's squadron at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, said Perry was "one of the guys," likable and self-assured, with a good reputation as a pilot.
Perry concluded that he didn't want a career in the military and returned to Paint Creek in 1977. Over the next seven years, he'd marry sweetheart Anita Thigpen, become a young father and seriously assess his future. During a trip into town after a vicious ice storm in 1983, Perry learned that long-time State Rep. Joe Hanna had decided not to seek re-election. His political journey was about to start.
(Montgomery is the Austin bureau chief for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)