Bush embraced easygoing life at A&M
Former president buried on campus where he found instant connections
COLLEGE STATION — Former President George H.W. Bush was laid to rest Thursday at Texas A&M, a university he never attended, but one he made home in the final decades of his life. His grave sits behind his presidential library, near a pond where he used to fish. And it’s a short walk from his namesake school of government and public service, where he used to drop into classes, sometimes with foreign dignitaries in tow.
After selecting Texas A&M in 1991, Bush and his wife Barbara set up an apartment on campus and became a regular presence.
“I think the connection was almost instant,” said
Mark Welsh, dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service. “He found thousands of kindred spirits here in Aggieland, and the place embraced him as much as he embraced it.”
A Yale graduate and longtime Houston resident, Bush had few former connections to Texas A&M. Yet before he was even sworn in as the 41st president, Aggies began lobbying him to choose the school for his library. A campus street was renamed in Bush’s honor. An alumni circulated a memo showing Bush had won 79 percent of the student body’s vote in the 1988 election.
Bush called A&M Board of Regents Chairman Ross Margraves from Air Force One in 1991 to say he’d chosen the school over Yale and Rice University.
“Mister President: read my lips,” Margraves recalls saying. “You made my day.”
Bush was drawn to its traditions, militarism and emphasis on service, faculty said. And around campus, he became known for his down-to-earth demeanor. Bush was spotted pitching horseshoes with students, cheering on the baseball team from the stands and even doing shoulder presses at the gym.
A legacy of service
And for Bush, a major selling point of Texas A&M was the public service school, faculty said. He took pride in the fact that 70 percent of graduates went onto careers in public service, like his own that spanned decades from naval pilot to president.
“He told us many times that maybe his most important legacy as a former president was to have that school, where young men and women could follow in his footsteps and do public service,” said James Olson, whom Bush recruited from the CIA to become a professor at the graduate school.
At the school’s dedication in 1997, Bush compared his excitement to the exhilaration of “parachuting out of a perfectly good airplane” (which he did to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the presidential library.)
Bush’s influence at the school helped attract top speakers and talent, and he often interacted with students, faculty said. The former commander-in-chief was known to drop in on classes at the Bush School, even playing the role of president during cabinet meeting simulations with students.
Once Bush took former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to a class at the school for an hourlong discussion with 30 students, said Charles Hermann, the school’s first director.
When Bush learned one year that students were reading to preschoolers in Bryan for a literacy project, he asked to tag along.
“Sure enough, he and Barbara Bush jumped in the van and went with the students,” Hermann said. “He wanted to promote this idea as service; he liked that they were doing it.”
Until his health began to fail, the former president took a photo with each graduating class as they grew from 19 students to more than 200.
“I’ve heard him say ‘The Bush Library is a building for history. The Bush School is a building for a future,’ ” Hermann said. “To designate College Station as the burial site, I think that’s a real signal to all of us an ongoing commitment to continue the ideas he represented.”
‘Honor, dignity, respect’
As politics grew increasingly partisan in Washington, D.C., Bush reached across the aisle with invitations to College Station. He presented an award in 2003 to Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who’d been critical of then-president George W. Bush’s approach to Iraq. More recently, Bush brought in the four other living former presidents for a Hurricane Harvey relief aid event.
Bush also felt an affinity to the school’s origins as a military college. Texas A&M still counts more than 2,400 students in the Corps of Cadets. Many stood at attention along the road Thursday as Bush’s casket was driven to the presidential library and his final resting place.
Many of the current undergraduates weren’t yet born when Bush was commander in chief. Still, he’s left an impression.
On Wednesday, hundreds of students gathered on sidewalks and the tops of parking garages to watch the presidential plane carrying Bush’s casket fly low over campus. After a moment of silence, some students began to clap.
“He really represents what Texas A&M is about in terms of honor, dignity and respect,” said Blake Johnson, a freshman member of the Corps of Cadets who dressed in the khaki uniform.
The site of Bush’s grave is behind the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum and is expected to open to the public on Saturday.
Sharlene Dickey and her husband loaded their two children into the car at 5:30 a.m. Friday morning in Houston and set off for College Station. Then, in the pouring rain, they waited in line for the presidential library to open.
Dickey motioned to her 7-yearold son, “since he had 100 questions, I said ‘let’s make this trip so I can answer them,’ ” she said.
President George H.W. Bush’s gravesite behind his library at College Station will be open to the public.
People crowd around to sign the guestbook after the doors to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library open Friday. Bush was buried at a gravesite on the library’s grounds on Thursday. The gravesite is expected to be opened to the public on Saturday.