By Jennifer Brett, Jill Vejnoska and Shelia Poole
For much of her life, Barbara Bush had Georgia on her mind.
Her 73-year marriage began in 1945 with a honeymoon trip to the Cloister at Sea Island; she and George H.W. Bush were back in 1995 for their 50th anniversary. Her literacy foundation has partnered with programs across the state, and she was instrumental in helping Morehouse School of Medicine raise money in its early days. When her husband needed Georgia to ascend from the vice presidency to the Oval Office, she came to Atlanta to make a personal appeal.
“She was a tough lady. Great wit. Very authentic,” said Eric Tanenblatt, who served in the first Bush administration, later became Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue’s chief of staff and now chairs the U.S. Public Policy practice at the global law firm Dentons. “Whenever I was around her, I felt like I was with someone truly authentic and sincere. She was like everyone’s grandmother.”
He was manning an Atlanta phone bank in 1987 on behalf of George H.W. Bush’s presidential bid when Barbara Bush walked in — and got to work.
“She actually got on the phone,” he recalled. “She started calling people in Georgia to thank them for their support. She was actively involved in the campaigns.”
Bush, 92, died Tuesday in Houston after a period of failing health. A public celebration of her life is planned for Thursday at Houston’s City Hall. Her remains will lie in repose from noon to midnight Friday at St. Martin’s Church in Houston, and members of the public may pay respects during those hours. (Details are posted online at barbarapbush.com/funeral-information.)
Her funeral service on Saturday is private. Former presidents and first ladies Barack and Michelle Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton have announced plans to attend, as has first lady Melania Trump.
Dr. Louis W. Sullivan of Atlanta, who served as secretary of Health and Human Services from 1989 to 1993, will be there as well. He said the friendship he began with Barbara Bush during her husband’s time as vice president proved vital to Atlanta’s Morehouse School of Medicine. He became president of the medical school in 1981 and retired in 2002, stepping away from the role during his time in the Bush administration.
“I’ve known Mrs. Bush since November 1982, when I accompanied then-Vice President Bush on a trip through sub-Saharan Africa,” he said. “This was the first visit to sub-Saharan Africa by a senior member of the Reagan administration.”
While the vice president met with heads of state, Barbara Bush met with leaders of various groups, including leaders of adult literacy programs.
“At the end of this two-week trip, I convinced Barbara that she and I were in the same business, just different branches,” Sullivan said. “Morehouse School of Medicine was a young institution then. She accepted our invitation and joined our board in January 1983. In six years, she missed only one meeting.”
She helped the institution raise vital support, he added.
“We had luncheons all over the country with members of the business and philanthropic communities,” he said. “She was our draw. That campaign was a success. She played a key role.”
Bush later wrote the foreword to “The Morehouse Mystique,” Sullivan’s history of the medical school. The institution’s endowed George H.W. and Barbara P. Bush Professor of Neuroscience position reflects her dedication.
“Barbara Bush was committed to the concept of equal opportunity for all Americans,” Sullivan said. “She embodied a quiet but firm and noble dignity. She glorified the importance of public service, to uplift the lives of others.”
In 1989, Bush created the Tallahassee, Fla.-based Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which provided more than $110 million in grants for literacy programs across the nation, including in schools serving metro Atlanta, Dublin and Savannah. In 2016, the foundation made a $100,000 grant to the “Talk With Me Baby” early childhood literacy program developed at Emory University.
Jackie Curtis is executive director of Communities in Schools of Laurens County, which received a $65,000 grant to start a program for teenage mothers who had dropped out of high school. Bush’s influence cannot be overstated, Curtis said.
“I think history will prove that her impact on literacy was probably more far-reaching than her position as first lady and the mother of a president,” she said.
Perhaps Bush’s most prominent final public appearance was the 2017 Super Bowl, where more than 70,000 fans filled NRG Stadium in Houston with deafening cheers as she and her husband were conveyed onto the field for the pregame coin toss. Hailing from New York and Massachusetts, it’s possible that Barbara and George H.W. Bush are Patriots fans. But Barbara Bush, radiant in a hot pink poncho, exchanged greetings with Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan as part of the festivities.
During a trip to Atlanta last fall to promote their new book, Barbara Pierce Bush and Jenna Bush Hager shared warm and funny memories of their “Ganny.” The twins were 7 when their grandfather became president. Keen to seize the mantle of first granddaughters, they ordered peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches to be delivered to the White House bowling alley. Ganny put the kibosh on the Eloise act, reminding the young ladies they were in the people’s house, “not in a hotel.”
Later, during George W. Bush’s administration, their grandmother admonished the leader of the free world when he got too comfy: “I don’t care if you are the president of the United States, take your feet off my coffee table.” Bush 43 complied.
Tanenblatt, the former Bush administration official, chuckled at how the anecdotes underscored Barbara Bush’s unassuming bearing.
“She was sincere but she was clearly someone who spoke her mind. There were no airs about her,” he said. “Mrs. Bush’s life, and now her legacy, was an extraordinary one, spent in service to her family and her country. The loss of her light and love felt today by her family is shared by all who knew her and by the many whose lives were radically changed by her leadership and work in literacy. I was honored to have known the former first lady for more than 30 years, and I will miss her grace and wit.”