Bush em­braced easy­go­ing life at A&M

For­mer pres­i­dent buried on cam­pus where he found in­stant con­nec­tions

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Al­lie Morris

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.

Elizabeth Con­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush’s gravesite be­hind his li­brary at Col­lege Sta­tion will be open to the pub­lic.

Mark Mul­li­gan / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

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.

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