In Memoriam: Barbara Bush

Although somber, the passing of former first lady Barbara Bush this past Tuesday, April 17th, has allowed our nation to reflect on the remarkable life of the matriarch of one of America’s last great families.

Barbara Bush, was born Barbara Pierce on June 8th 1925 in New York City. During her youth in the New York City suburbs, Barbara was a lively and athletic girl. She had extensive social and academic success, and was, above all, a voracious reader. To further her education, Barbara’s parents sent her to board at Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina.

Barbara Bush

Barbara Bush

In 1941, Barbara, just 16 years old, was home from Charleston for Christmas break when she attended a local Christmas dance with her sister. It was at that dance that Barbara meet George H.W. Bush, who was in his senior year at Andover at the time. In an interview in 1994 she said that she realized immediately what a terrible dancer he was, but was still so taken with him that she begged her parents to let her marry him instead of finishing her schooling. Ultimately, it was not Barbara’s parents, but rather the Second World War that hindered that plan. Immediately after his graduation from Andover, Bush left to serve as a Navy pilot, becoming the youngest combat pilot in the war.  While he was deployed, George and Barbara wrote each other frequently in heartwarming letters using the endearing nicknames, Poppy and Bar.  Additionally, George Bush famously named his plane in the war The Barbara.

Following his safe rescue from a harrowing incident where Bush’s plane was shot down in the Pacific, George H.W. Bush returned to New York and the couple married in January 1945. Their first son,  President George W. Bush, was born in 1946 while the couple was living in New Haven, Connecticut where George was studying at Yale.

Following his graduation, the family moved to Texas where George would start a career in the petroleum industry, and Barbara would give birth to her five younger children. The Bush’s second child, Pauline Robinson Bush, was born in 1949, just three months after the tragic, unexpected death of Barbara’s mother in a car accident in California.  This child, affectionately known as Robin, died at the age of three following a seven-month battle with leukemia.  Both President and First Lady Bush would call the death of their daughter a watershed event in their lives. In her memoir, Barbara stated that this loss made them more empathetic and made them care more and place more value on the life of every human.

Throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s,  Mrs. Bush worked tirelessly, raising her five children,  supporting her husband’s political career, and completing substantial volunteering work. Despite her support for her husband, Mrs. Bush always made it clear that her primary focus was her family, not politics. This commitment made her wildly popular across the country first as the Second Lady and then as the First Lady. Following the iconic, Nancy Reagan, Bush was seen as friendly, warm, and unpretentious. She self branded as America’s Grandma,  and was beloved for her practical style which always included several strands of fake pearls.

During her time in the White House, Barbara Bush championed literacy, a cause near and dear to her heart, as several of her children struggled with dyslexia. She founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy,  an organization that she remained heavily involved with until her death.

Bush was also beloved for her self-deprecation and wit. She famously offered the commencement address at Wellesley College in 1990 stating: “And who knows? Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the President’s spouse. I wish him well!.”

After her husband’s defeat in the 1992 presidential election, Barbara once again turned her focus entirely to her family. She played instrumental roles in her son’s campaigns for the governorships of Texas and Florida, as well as for the presidency.  When her oldest son George W. Bush was elected in 2000, Barbara Bush became the second woman, after Abigail Adams,  to have both a husband and a son as the president.

Even with age and poor health,  Mrs. Bush’s unfailing strength and dignity never failed never wavered.  Even the the official statement that Mrs. Bush was seeking only palliative care for her ailments, her family confirmed that it was Mrs. Bush herself that serving as the rock for her family throughout the difficult time prior to her death. Both Mrs. Bush and her entire family affirm that this strength of spirit was a direct result of her faith. A life-long Christian, Bush turned to her faith in times of hardship, just as Americans are doing now in the wake of the loss of a truly great woman.