Frank Pavone was a 17-year-old, long-haired, soon-to-be valedictorian at Port Chester High School in January 1976 when his mom asked him to join a bus ride to Washington.
Marion Pavone didn't really expect him to go to a rally against abortion. Frank was completely absorbed in his studies, a math whiz who was close to graduating a year early.
"When do you get a teenager willing to go on a long trip with mother and grandmother?" she remembered. "Who does that?"
Marion and her husband, Joseph, knew that the oldest of their two sons had become a pretty serious Roman Catholic, even talking about his faith during advanced-placement presentations at school. They didn't know that he was considering becoming a priest.
So Frank tagged along to the third annual March for Life. It was a disorganized gathering that attracted little notice on a biting cold day. But the influence of that march on Frank Pavone has rippled across the nation's "culture wars" for more than three decades.
"I didn't know much about abortion," he said recently. "Going to the march made me realize this wasn't a private issue, but a public issue. All these people from different backgrounds were coming to Washington to say so. It was more than a religious issue, a political issue. This was a matter of civil rights and human rights."
Pavone was ordained in 1988 and five years later took over Priests for Life, a tiny anti-abortion group with $3,000 in the bank. Today, Priests for Life is a national force with a $12 million budget, 60 full-time staffers and a leadership position atop the religious right.
He is treated as a rock star at anti-abortion rallies, such as one he led at Notre Dame in May while President Barack Obama was honored at commencement exercises.
And he is reviled by many who support abortion rights and insist that Pavone has tacitly promoted extremism across the anti-abortion movement.
"Of all the anti-choice clergy, he is one of the most harsh," said Polly Rothstein of Harrison, who founded the Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion in 1972 and ran it for three decades. "He was meaner and more strident."
Pavone practically lives on the road, speaking a dozen times a week in several states and strengthening his network of support. During a recent visit to his parents' home, across the street from Port Chester High School, he spoke with the cool conviction of someone who is certain he is right and destined to stop what he calls the killing of babies.
"We're not trying to reach the hardcore on the other side," he said. "When we present our arguments and evidence, enough are persuaded that we can change the culture. There is a critical mass — somewhere — that can change the culture of the country."
It all started in Port Chester, where Pavone remains closely tied to the Catholic community. He usually preaches on Christmas and Easter at Corpus Christi Church, where his parents are still parishioners.
"Many of us are overwhelmed by the progress he's making," said Samuel Acerbo, 81, a lifelong Port Chester resident who has known Pavone's mother since childhood and served on a right-to-life group with Pavone during the 1980s.
"Even before he was ordained, he was a very good speaker, very detailed, very forceful," Acerbo said. "He gets the message across. When he comes back to Corpus Christi, we're very proud."
Many in Port Chester know the Pavone name. A family business started by Pavone's grandfather, Frank Pavone Leather and Shoe Findings, operated from the 1940s through 1964.
Until the age of 4, Pavone lived with his family two doors down from Holy Rosary Church, run, like Corpus Christi Church, by the Salesians of Don Bosco. Frank had to be in bed before the church bells rang at 8 p.m.
Pavone was equally at home when the family moved across the street from the high school. He was a school-centric kid, preparing his own lesson plans. He studied high school math while in junior high and took math at SUNY Purchase College while in high school.
"Mathematical concepts like infinity lead to philosophical questions, which lead to religious ones," he said.
When he wasn't studying, he worked for the yearbook and student newspaper, argued for the debate team and served as statistician for the football team. He played some organ, launched model rockets and went to Playland often.
Pavone also started attending prayer meetings while in high school. He dedicated his valedictory address to faith and service.
He surprised his parents by choosing a Salesian college over the Ivys. He became a Salesian brother and soon after a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.
Pavone was assigned to a parish on Staten Island, which had a strong "pro-life" community. He helped coordinate anti-abortion work for Staten Island parishes while picketing abortion clinics with people of all faiths.
"Pro-life became the alarm going off in my mind, coming before everything else," he said.
In early 1993, Cardinal John O'Connor gave Pavone permission to fight abortion full time, and Pavone soon became director of Priests for Life. He started with a tiny office in the rectory of Holy Rosary Church. His first employee lived with his parents.
He started networking immediately, promoting the support of O'Connor — a hero to the anti-abortion movement — to open doors and wallets. Since he wanted to build alliances with evangelical groups, it helped that he had visited Protestant churches around Port Chester before he became a priest.
"Even back then, he wanted to establish relationships with different Christian traditions," said Martha Cruz Griffith, who was pastor of North Baptist Church in Port Chester during the early 1980s and had Pavone preach at her church. "He had a real heart for ministry."
In building a name for himself as a general on the conservative side of the culture wars, Pavone can point to a series of defining achievements.
In 1994, he addressed Mother Teresa and her nuns in Calcutta, India, for five days. In 1995, he began a television series, "Defending Life," on EWTN, the Catholic network, that still runs. From 1997 to 1999, at O'Connor's request, he served at the Vatican, making important contacts. In 1998, he guided Norma McCorvey — Jane Roe in the Roe v. Wade abortion case, who had become an anti-abortion activist — as she converted to Catholicism. For several years, he led the fight to stop the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, calling the removal of the tube in 2005 a "killing."
He has also built alliances with key leaders across the Protestant right, including James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, Rob Schenck of Faith and Action, and Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition. He has been close to Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, who became a Catholic in 2006.
Many supporters of abortion rights criticize Pavone for blurring the line between mainstream advocacy and extremism and for using stark language that they say can provoke violence.
A decade-old report by a liberal think tank, the Institute for Democracy Studies, set the tone by insisting that "Pavone has a public record of erring on the side of militancy ..."
The Rev. Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington, which represents about 40 Christian and Jewish denominations and groups that support abortion rights, said that Pavone's stridency makes for an influential yet worrisome adversary.
"I'm not accusing him directly, but what he says contributes to other people being violent," Veazey said. "I respect their beliefs, even though I don't share them, but they don't respect mine. They want me to practice what they preach, but I have a right to interpret the Bible and my theology the way I choose."
After abortion doctor George Tiller was killed on May 31 by an anti-abortion activist, Pavone released a video condemning the action. "We abhor this kind of violence," he said.
He also worried that anti-abortion activists would be "tarred" as evil and violent. "This is a time to refocus on the right way of ending the killing," he said.
Pavone's independence within the hierarchical Catholic Church has caused confusion about his allegiance. After Cardinal Edward Egan asked him to serve a parish while running Priests for Life, Pavone left the Archdiocese of New York in 2004 to affiliate with a Texas diocese, where the bishop gave him the freedom he wanted.
Pavone acknowledges that he is sometimes seen as an "independent operative, a loose canon." The Priest for Life Web site even includes proof of his ordination.
But Pavone said his independence allows him to represent the Catholic position on abortion with a confrontational edge that most bishops would avoid.
"Many bishops are risk-adverse," he said. "We can take on projects they might see as too political. They can say 'amen' to us, but not have to answer for what we do."
Although Pavone takes some time each summer to indulge a lifelong love of roller-coasters, he works most days from 5 a.m. until late.
Through videos, e-mail and numerous daily interviews, he comments on political and social developments in almost real time.
While discussing his life at his parents' home, he stopped to do a quick telephone interview with a California radio station about opposition from several groups to an anti-abortion commercial during the Super Bowl.
He went right into attack mode: "They're not in favor of choice," he said. "They're in favor of the abortion industry."