This past December I was on my way to Texas A&M’s campus with thousands of others to greet the 4141 engine and welcome President George H.W. Bush home to Aggieland one last time. Shortly before hitting the intersection at Texas Avenue and University Drive, my Great Aunt Dottie in Kentucky called. She hoped I would see the train in person as her and my grandmother, like many other Americans, had been keeping up with the day’s events on TV. After a brief conversation and before we hung up, Aunt Dottie mentioned she would love if I wrote an article not only about this experience, but a couple other events regarding President Bush that I’ve had an opportunity to attend right here in College Station, TX in recent years.
Though a few months delayed, I took some good notes and finally put pen to paper.
My earliest memory of George H.W. Bush was in 1999. Dad’s Kentucky family was down for one of their many visits. Great MawMaw Melvin, who was quite the traveller, writer, and the one who ultimately inspired my letter writing and now blogging insisted that the family take the 90 mile drive to College Station to visit the tenth built Presidential library. While I don’t remember any specifics from the library, I do remember Great MawMaw Melvin’s kind words of the Bushes and how happy she was to see the library.
Around this same time, my family began attending Astros games at their newly built home in downtown Houston. Often times right behind catcher, Brad Ausmus, were George and Barbara sitting so sweetly. As Astros greats such as Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman and Jeff Bagwell stepped up to bat or crossed home plate you could see the Bushes gentle smiles as they cheered the guys on to victory. Though not hard to do, it was always such a thrill to spot George and Barbara whether at Minute Maid Park or at home on TV.
Additionally, shortly before the Bush Presidential Library opened in 1997, Houston City Council voted to change the name of Houston Intercontinental Airport to George Bush Intercontinental Airport. Considering the majority of my family lives out-of-state we’ve made several trips to Bush whether to fly out, pick-up, or drop-off…still do! I believe most would agree with me that the entire airport is very Houston…and how fitting – it’s synonymous to the love and support the Bushes had of Houston – complete with an 8-foot statue of H.W. in Terminal C. On a side note, I thought it was very classy on United’s part the day of Bush’s National service, December 5th, to close gate C41 to pay tribute to 41’s life and legacy.
Although my earliest memories of the Bushes aren’t any different from most my age from around the Houston area, I remember thinking what a leader this man must have been to have such a presence in my young life and be so incredibly admired by those years older than me.
The Bryan-College Station Community
In the past 10 years or so I’ve taken a great interest in learning about American presidents. In fact it’s on my bucket list to visit every Presidential library and the nerdy, list-loving side of me took it as far as memorizing all 45 presidents in order of presidency. Tho I’m not sure where this talent will take me, I can recite them all in under 11 seconds. Anyhow, I always found H.W. and the Bush family in general to be one of the more fascinating presidents and families to learn about.
Then 6 years ago, I took the same 90 mile drive the family took back in 1999 – and several times thereafter – and planted my roots in College Station, first to attend Texas A&M and now as a former student who drank the kool aid and never left. During my time at A&M, I often found myself cycling to the library and walking the Barbara Bush Rose Garden during study breaks, checking out the newest rotating exhibits throughout the year, and insisting family and friends visiting from out-of-state make time to see the library. My best friend and I even made it an annual tradition for the 3 years we were in college to wear “fun” socks every June 12th, H.W’s birthday, and visit the library.
Today, as I’ve transitioned from a student to a resident of Bryan-College Station over the last three years, I’ve heard many first-hand, heartwarming stories, memories, and kind words of the Bushes that took place right here in the BCS community during their visits. Whether from restaurant owners and staff who waited on the two, community members who crossed paths with them while visiting the library grounds, or from students who ran into the couple while on campus – each story was filled with adjectives describing the Bushes as humble, welcoming, interested, sweet, classy…and the list of kind words goes on and on.
Of course by the time I got to Bryan-College Station the Bushes had slowed down quite a bit and weren’t near as present in the community as they were for years prior. The only time I actually saw the Bushes during college was in March of 2016. It was a blissful spring day at Blue Bell Park and Texas A&M baseball was taking on the Yale Bulldogs.
As a light breeze filled the stadium and the sun beamed down – the sold-out crowd enthusiastically rose from their seats at the sight of President Bush entering the field to throw out two ceremonial first pitches – one to a Yale catcher, his alma mater, and one to an A&M catcher. In true H.W. fashion, he sported snazzy maroon socks, an A&M cap, and a Yale jersey. It was a beautiful day to welcome Mr. Bush back home to Aggieland.
Deep From the Heart: One America Appeal
Then about a year and half after the Yale baseball game, Hurricane Harvey roared into the Texas Gulf and overstayed its welcome, dropping 51.88 inches of rain on the Houston area and devastating many on the Texas coast. The Bush Presidential Library Foundation helped manage, Deep From the Heart: One America Appeal, a benefit concert at Reed Arena in Aggieland. It was a joint effort by all 5 former, living American Presidents to encourage citizens to support recovery efforts from Hurricane Harvey. This event sold out in less than 24 hours and to-date this was the most overwhelmingly, patriotic, American event I had ever witnessed. I also had never seen so many men in black suits walking the grounds, peering over rooftops with binoculars, and being very clear about how that day’s operations were going to go. I’m sure there were also several others in street clothes listening to me comment about my amazement with it all.
To set the stage, Lee Greenwood was the emcee and kicked things off with God Bless the USA. From Lyle Lovett, Lady Gaga, Alabama, to the Gatlin Brothers and several other notable artists, it was a truly wonderful and American experience. All 5 former, living American Presidents were in attendance and even spoke – it was a remarkable, memorable and historical night for sure. One America Appeal ended up raising 42 million dollars for hurricane relief that stretched far beyond Texas and Hurricane Harvey.
I believe this is just one of many testaments to the love and respect not only Americans have for George H.W. Bush, but other Presidents from all sides of the aisle as well. For one night, an audience of 5 American Presidents, 13,000 people and another 6.5 million who watched online put politics aside and came together for one great cause. Tho H.W. himself did not speak, the glee in his eye the entire concert as he and Barbara sat side by side, holding hands was enough.
The following April, H.W’s beloved Bar passed away. Students organized a candlelight vigil at the library that night, news crews rolled into town, sweet memories of the former first lady filled social media and throughout the next week pearl billboards honoring the Former First Lady popped up all around Texas and the US.
In the days leading up to her burial, it was quite fascinating to watch the logistics of preparing the library grounds and surrounding area for Mrs. Bush’s arrival – clearly security was the main focus and it still amazes me all the organization and planning that had to have gone into it all.
The following Saturday, the Former First Lady’s motorcade traveled down Highway 290 out of Houston and onto Highway 6 in Navasota before hitting Texas Avenue and George Bush Drive in College Station where crowds lined the sidewalks to pay their respects – many holding posters with kind farewell messages, while others waved American flags. The silence that fell over the crowd as the motorcade passed was chilling. I have never felt a greater sense of patriotism than what I experienced April 21st, 2018.
George H.W. Bush Passes Away
A few short months later on Friday, November 30th, George H.W. Bush passed away.
Much like what the town experienced after Barbara’s passing, news crews rolled in, the university began prepping the library and surrounding area, security was rampant, sweet messages flooded social media, and touching local stories filled town.
I went out to the library two days later and spent the longest time I had ever spent there, about 3 hours. The majority of my time was spent in the room where they typically show a 20 minute film about Bush’s life and presidency, except they had exchanged it for the documentary, 41 on 41, which I highly recommend if you’ve never seen it.
As I exited the room and headed toward the museum, several people were signing the register, admiring the portrait of Bush at the front, or asking volunteers a multitude of questions. I had never seen so many people in the museum at one time. It was heartwarming to see many families with young children as parents explained the importance of their visit and answered questions inquiring young minds wanted to know as they meandered through the exhibits.
My last stop was outside to see his statue and to walk the Barbara Bush Rose Garden. Several people had put flowers on H.W.’s statue, while others pondered the quote etched on the side of the library from across the lake: “Let future generations understand the burden and the blessings of freedom. Let them say we stood where duty required us to stand,”, an excerpt from his 1991 State of the Union Address.
As I made my way around the lake, I began talking to a man in a suit for a few minutes about my frequent library visits and my fascination with the Bush family. Unbeknownst by me, turns out he was a reporter for KPRC News out of Houston as he started unzipping a microphone and saying he “liked that line” and would I mind being interviewed. Truthfully, I felt bamboozled. I never put two and two together that this man was a reporter.
Suddenly, I got a bit bashful – I find great joy in meeting and talking to people, but I’m pretty camera shy. However, I thought what an opportunity to talk about a person I have great respect for as my first live television appearance. So there I was, stating my name into the microphone and leaving it to the professionals to capture whatever it was they wanted me to say – unscripted and unprepared, two words not in my vocabulary. In all seriousness tho, it was a great honor to have the opportunity to talk about President Bush in one of my favorite spots in the Brazos Valley. (You can check it out my television debut here)
The next few days I watched everything unfold from his National service in DC, to his service back home in Houston. The anticipation of his arrival in Aggieland started becoming real when Air Force One flew over College Station after departing DC and before arriving in Houston. I believe everyone in College Station were outside their offices that afternoon – looking up at the gray, cloud covered sky as Air Force One jetted up above.
Welcome Home, 41
Though a gloomy, rainy, and cold day, Thursday, December 6th 2018, is a moment in history I’ll never forget.
Shortly after Bush’s Houston services concluded the 4141 funeral train departed Spring and began its 70 mile journey to College Station – passing through several communities where crowds lined small downtowns and rural roadsides.
Here in College Station, my friend Mary and I headed to Texas A&M’s campus around 1PM as we were unsure what to expect crowd wise to watch Bush’s train enter town – the 4141 engine was expected to arrive around 3:30PM. As we neared the intersection of George Bush Drive and Wellborn Road, a crowd was slowly growing. We found a spot directly across from the platforms where the Bush family would exit the train.
Soon after, an on campus organization with thousands of American flags handed us a couple as we began making small talk with the family next to us. This particular family was from McKinney, Texas and brought their two young children back to their alma mater so that they too could experience this historic event as a family. The dad was a former Marine who had great respect for the Bush family and the four had made plans to visit the library the next day when it opened back up. Another couple came from Burton, Texas and were incredibly sweet and just couldn’t believe we all got to be part of such a historic event. It was truly remarkable how fast complete strangers can be united because of one man.
As the eight of us and thousands of others stood peering across Wellborn Rd. at the railroad tracks anticipating H.W.’s arrival in the rain and cold – across the tracks, the Ross Volunteers, A&M Singing Cadets, and Aggie band began to congregate near the platforms. The motorcade arrived not too long after. Much like at the One America Appeal concert, you could look at the top of buildings and down the street and see several men keeping a watchful eye out for anything out of place.
Once we heard the DPS helicopter hovering up above, we knew the 4141 funeral train was near. To be totally honest, from this point forward, words to describe the feeling and emotion that swirled in my head and on the faces of thousands are hard to find. We had literally spent the last three hours in the pouring rain, but no sooner than we looked south down the tracks and saw the engine, did the rain stop and never return. Just amazing.
The once anxious crowd totally silenced. As the train putted along, George W. and Laura stood outside the train car and greeted the crowd with sweet smiles and sincere waves. At the sight of the Former President and First Lady, emotions for the crowd were hard to keep contained and cheers rang out for the Bush family.
The most chilling moment was when W. was about to step off the train and the Marine next to us shouted, “We love you, George!”, and W. came back and waved one last time as the crowd erupted in cheer.
Once the family exited the train, the Aggie War Hymn began playing at the request of Mr. President himself, much to everyone’s surprise, as they unloaded H.W.’s casket. What a testament that was to the A&M community of the respect Bush had for the school’s values and traditions. The 21-aircraft “Missing Man” formation that followed was absolutely breathtaking – especially when the last one jetted off from the rest, straight up into the gray, cloud-filled sky. Shortly after, the once packed crowd of thousands began to disperse as everyone headed back to their cars.
That day and the months that followed, I’ve reflected quite a bit. Even today, I continue to get chills when various snapshots cycle through my head of the emotion, patriotism, and pride clear as day on thousands of Americans faces during those few short hours. It was a historic day indeed as it reinstated the tradition of a President being transported to their final resting place by train that hasn’t been seen in almost 50 years – a tradition that followed the deaths of Lincoln, Grant, Garfield, McKinley, Roosevelt, Eisenhower…and now George H.W. Bush. What a memorable day it was for all.
Thanks to a friend who was further down the tracks where security wasn’t near as tight, I got a memento from the event, a flattened penny, courtesy of the 4141 locomotive…Thanks Andrew!
Final Resting Place
The following Sunday, the gravesite and library opened back up at noon, which was another cloud-covered, cold, dreary day. I went out there that afternoon and this time, there was a line to get into the library – a site I have for sure never seen. Hundreds and people had come to pay their respects and cleary from all over as I heard several different accents and even languages while walking the grounds. The museum was packed wall to wall with people and the trail to the gravesite had a steady stream of walkers. Once at the gravesite, I had to stand on a hillside to see around all the people.
One slightly funny encounter I had in the museum was a conversation I overheard. A lady asked an older gentleman, “Does George still live in Crawford?”. The man’s response, “Ma’am, George passed away.” All it was a simple miscommunication of which George Bush the two were referring to, but I had to smile.
…and here we are exactly 20 years later from the first time I visited the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum – reflecting and writing. The sweet couple I used to get so excited about seeing behind home plate at Minute Maid Park are the same ones that united strangers and brought generations together as we welcomed both of them back home to Aggieland one last time in the most patriotic, peaceful, non-political and beautiful way possible…not once, but twice in the last year.
Now that’s a leader, a man of character, and one who impacted a nation. My hope is that all Americans, especially younger generations will get the experience the great sense of patriotism I did on December 6, 2018 – I know it’s one I’ll long to feel again.
P.S. An excellent book that truly speaks to Bush’s character from the ones who protected him is, In the President’s Secret Service. This book covers several other President’s details as well, as agents discuss what it was like to protect and still protect our nation’s leaders. It is truly heartwarming to hear the kind remarks they have of the Bush family.