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Bush's legacy will be love, literacy, levity, Hauenstein Center director says

  • A portrait of former first lady Barbara Bush

Posted on April 18, 2018

The first time Gleaves Whitney met former first lady Barbara Bush, who died April 17 at the age of 92, he was a middle-school-aged kid who lived in the Houston neighborhood one over from where the Bush family lived. Whitney, who is the director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University, said he remembers being struck by her focus on whomever she was speaking with.

"She just had such a direct way with you, she'd look you right in the eye, and when she spoke with you, it was obvious she was present there just for you," Whitney said.

Whitney had the occasion to meet Barbara Bush and President George H.W. Bush on two more occasions throughout his life, and said Barbara had a personality that could steal the show from the president. 

But it was her dedication to public service, her strong love of family and friends, and her dedication to literacy that will serve as her enduring legacy, Whitney said. 

"Barbara Bush came from a family that was very much service-oriented and she married into a family, when the Pierces and the Bushes got together, married into a family that was also very service-oriented. So for them, politics was not just about running for office and winning elections, for them politics was about public service; it was what they could do for the American people. And that's one of her great legacies, that's a legacy that we continue to honor this day and we will honor for as long as this country exists," Whitney said.

Barbara's focus on literacy was one of her most well-known priorities as first lady, in large part because her son, Neil, was dyslexic and had difficulty reading. 

"She saw the impact on him and she knew how important it was that our young people be able to read and that their families could read so they could achieve the American dream," Whitney said.

Barbara's personality also helped her encourage others to do their best. Whitney said that one of the first lady's most important public addresses was a graduation speech at Wellesley College in 1990, where she told graduates they should strive to live for something that was greater than themselves, and if they could do that, they would find joy and purpose. Whitney said Barbara wanted young Americans to feel a sense of joy in their personal capacities of what they could do and give to others.

Barbara Bush also made her family and her friends a priority, Whitney said, and she was fiercely loyal to them. She was known for saying it didn't matter so much if someone closed another business deal or got another "A" on a test, or got a job promotion. What she thought counted was that, at the end of the day, if someone was loyal and available for family and friends.

Grand Valley President Thomas J. Haas also was able to meet the former first lady personally, when he was a lieutenant in the Coast Guard.

He and his wife, Marcia Haas, served as social aides for then-Vice President Bush and Barbara Bush during several events, including the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. “The news reports describing Barbara Bush as genuine and authentic are true,” said Haas. “George Bush was like a dad in many regards.”

Haas described the Bushes as having a true love for one another and the country. “They are truly family people,” said Haas. “After George Bush was president, I called him to ask if he would be a Coast Guard Hedrick Fellow. When he visited the academy, and during all of our conversations and interactions, he always talked about his family with great pride and about his relationship with Barbara, in particular.”

Haas said he remembers when President Bush visited the Coast Guard Academy as the commencement speaker and got down on one knee to shake the hands of his young sons, Eric and Gregory.