Former President George H.W. Bush's legacy echoes in Bryan-College Station and far beyond

FILE - In this Feb. 6, 2007, file photo, former President George H.W. Bush arrives at the 2007 Ronald Reagan Freedom Award gala dinner held in his honor in Beverly Hills, Calif. Bush has died at age 94. Family spokesman Jim McGrath says Bush died shortly after 10 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, about eight months after the death of his wife, Barbara Bush. 

BRYAN-COLLEGE STATION, Texas — In 1992, Shannon Dubberly was a fifth-grader in Crockett, Texas. He and dozens of classmates had written letters to the president. He was just starting to pay real attention to the news and was beginning to learn the deeper meaning of words like honor and service. Weeks later, something happened that would have a profound impact on his life.

He got a letter back.

In 1999, Gen. Mark Welsh, now the dean of the Texas A&M Bush School of Government and Public Service, gave a speech at the Air Force Academy that was published in The Wall Street Journal about his experiences in the Gulf War. Days later, Welsh got a handwritten letter from a World War II veteran thanking him for his words, and for his service.

The letter was from Welsh's former commander-in-chief, a man he had not yet met but would, years later, come to know.

"That was my first real introduction to his style and the way he thought about others, the way he cared about others," Welsh said Tuesday. "I thought at first, 'Why in the world is a former president sending me a letter?' Then I found out about his thousands of letters. That was one of the many things he did -- he wrote people. The root of all his success was that he was a great human being. Before anything else, he was a good man." 

George Herbert Walker Bush died in Houston Friday night at age 94. After three days in Washington, D.C. that were capped Wednesday with a service at the National Cathedral, Bush's remains will be buried in College Station on the grounds of the George Bush Presidential Library Museum, next to his wife, Barbara Bush, and their daughter Robin, who died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953.

In homes and in media outlets, on social media and in groups large and small, people across the nation -- and the world -- have been considering and reflecting on the 41st president's legacy.

Bush was the last of eight consecutive presidents who served in the U.S. military during World War II, a streak that began in 1953 with Dwight D. Eisenhower. He is America's most recent one-term president, decisively defeating Michael Dukakis in 1988 before losing to Bill Clinton in 1992, an election in which billionaire independent candidate Ross Perot won 18.9 percent of the popular vote.

He entered the Oval Office in January 1989 with a lengthy list of qualifications. He had been a two-term congressman from the 7th District in west Houston, ambassador to the United Nations, United States envoy to China, chairman of the Republican National Committee, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and he served from 1981 to 1989 as Ronald Reagan's vice president.

In his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1989, Bush said, "Great nations of the world are moving toward democracy through the door to freedom. Men and women of the world move toward free markets through the door to prosperity." Those words proved prescient, as Bush presided over America during the collapse of communism and the triumph of democracy on the international stage.

As the nation remembers a president and takes stock of his legacy -- contributions and shortcomings, successes and failures -- many in Bryan-College Station have focused on Bush's post-presidential life. George and Barbara Bush lived in Houston, but came to view Aggieland as another home.

The Bushes had a 2,000 square-foot apartment above the Annenberg Conference Center and engaged regularly with students, staff and faculty -- and the broader community. Barbara walked the dogs on the library and school grounds. Outback Steakhouse owner Tad Bentz said the Bushes treated him as a long-lost friend on each of their several visits to his restaurant.

"They acted like every other guest and wanted to be treated like any other guest. If you didn't know he was a former president, you never would have known he was a former president," Bentz said.

Stories like Bentz's have reigned this week in the Brazos Valley -- stories describing how the couple easily paired the worldly with the mundane, the stately with the unassuming.

"Imagine 30 Texas A&M Bush School students in a class sitting with President Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev, or Helmut Kohl of Germany, or Deng Xiaoping from China," Charles Hermann, founding director of the Bush School, said on Tuesday. "He had an enormous set of other world leaders he regarded as personal friends, and invited them to the Bush School and would sit them down in classes. He had an eagerness to let the students see those kinds of leaders and see discussion with world leaders up close."

Hermann said Bush was particularly involved in the school's early years, and wrote letters to prospective faculty members encouraging them to take positions at the emerging school. 

Hermann also told a story of teaching a class that had as part of its curriculum a live simulation of American foreign policy, in which students would play different roles. On this day a special guest, he said, requested the role of commander-in-chief.

"He came in and asked to play president in my class simulation," Hermann said, laughing.

Dubberly, now 37, recalled similar stories of interacting with Bush. Years later, Dubberly got to show the president the letter that helped cultivate his life path.

"That letter was a touchstone for me. A lot of students have their own touchstones with regard to President Bush," he said.

Dubberly, who now lives in Fort Worth, attended the Bush School from 2005 to 2007 and today is the president of the Bush School Former Student Network.

"You'd get to interact with people who truly forged history. There was a family atmosphere, and that started with the President and Mrs. Bush. They were open, friendly and forthright and made all the students feel like part of the family," he said.

When Gen. Mark Welsh accepted the role of Bush School dean in 2016, following his retirement as Air Force chief of staff, he returned to his phone after hours away and discovered that he had multiple voicemail messages from President Bush, congratulating him on the position.

"I couldn't pass up the chance to come here," Welsh said. "There couldn't be a better namesake for our school, especially for a school of public service."

"Our goal is a very simple one -- to produce principled leaders with values compatible with the way he served: respected and respectful people who are committed to serve their fellow citizens no matter what they do in terms of exact career position," he said.

Welsh said that Bush, as president, did what he believed was the right thing.

"When he was in office, he made decisions even when he knew it wouldn't be popular with his party or his supporters, from various legislation to making some tough decisions in the first Gulf War," he said. 

Welsh offered thoughts on critiques by some that the U.S. erred by not going beyond its mission to expel Iraqi troops from Kuwait in early 1991 -- "that we didn't go into Iraq and get Saddam [Hussein]," in Welsh's words.

"As somebody who was there -- I was commander of an F-16 squadron -- we appreciated that the mission was real clear, to remove Iraqi forces and get Kuwait back to the people of Kuwait. That kind of clarity on our end game, our end state, was helpful from a military perspective," he said. 

James and Meredith Olson worked undercover as CIA spies for more than 30 years, hiding their true identity even from their children. They worked under Bush when he served as CIA director from 1976 to 1977. James Olson said they briefed Bush both as vice president and as president. Bush wanted the intelligence field to be a prominent part of the Bush School's curriculum, Olson said, and in the summer of 1997, Bush approached then-CIA director George Tenet and asked for someone suitable to teach. Tenet suggested Olson.

"It's really no exaggeration to say President Bush loved us spies, and it was quite mutual," Olson said Wednesday, chuckling.

The Olsons came out from being undercover, surprising their family and others close to them with the truth. While Meredith pursued her newfound passion to become a nurse, attending Blinn College's nursing program before working at St. Joseph Hospital, Olson turned a two-year Bush School commitment into a 20-year second career. He and Meredith got to know the Bushes and described them as accessible and down to earth.

Of Bush's political legacy, Olson said, "I only knew him well in his post-presidential years, but I think his political legacy was nonpolitical. I really felt he was bipartisan, someone who recognized the validity of viewpoints on both sides of the aisle. He was never abrasive."

That desire to find common ground, Olson said, carried over to the Bush School's commitment to being a nonpartisan institution, despite its Republican namesake. "He really wanted our school to be neither a Republican nor a Democratic school, but a school at which we welcomed all beliefs, persuasions and ideologies. Our mission is service to the country and that is a nonpartisan issue." 

First-year Bush School student Eric M. Washington has spent time since Bush's death reflecting on his example.

"What I appreciate most about President Bush is that he lived in the moment," Washington said. "When asked about legacy, he said, 'Leave it to the historians to figure out what I screwed up, and what I got right.' Those words really resonate with me as someone who has aspirations for a career in public service, which President Bush himself called 'a noble calling.' " 

Washington, 25, who grew up in Bryan, discussed what he called the president's complex history on race, and named civil rights legislation in particular. As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Texas, Bush opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the landmark law banning many forms of racial discrimination.

Bush later shared his regrets about that political stance with a friend and political opponent, the Rev. John Stevens, an Episcopal minister, as reported by The Washington Post. "He just said, 'You know, John, in that election I took some of the far right positions that I thought I needed to get elected, and I regret it and I hope I'll never do it again," Stevens said, as quoted from a 1988 Frontline documentary on PBS.

Four years later, as a freshman member of the House, he voted for watershed legislation -- the Fair Housing Act of 1968, that made it illegal to refuse to rent or sell housing on the basis of race. The Post reported that Bush described it as one of his proudest moments in public office.

Bush faced complaints and hate mail from constituents, The Post reported. "Somehow, it seems fundamental that a man should not have a door slammed in his face because he is a Negro or speaks with a Latin-American accent," he told a gathering of his critics.

Jon Meacham, Bush's biographer who delivered Wednesday's eulogy of the president in Washington, D.C., wrote in The New York Times on Saturday: "For every compromise or concession to party orthodoxy or political expedience on the campaign trail, in office, Mr. Bush ultimately did the right thing."

Washington said he hopes that people explore and embrace the nuances of any leader's legacy.

"Individuals are complex, and after celebrating one's life, everyone deserves the right to look at world leaders through an analytical lens," he said. "Bottom line, we as a nation need to learn how to condemn and correct what is wrong and uplift what is right, regardless of political affiliation. Although President Bush was not without his flaws, he was a man of service, leadership, loyalty, and duty."

On Saturday night, Bush School students and other area residents formed a perimeter around the pond just outside the museum. Each held a battery-powered candle, and the crowd sang God Bless America and Anchors Aweigh. Bush School student Rebecca Schwarz co-planned the candlelight gathering.

"The vigil represented a chance for the student body to come together and honor what President Bush meant to the school. The vigil highlighted President Bush's contributions to the world as a man, as a public servant, and as a leader," she said.

The gathering, said Schwarz, gave people a chance honor both the sacred and the lighthearted -- to wear festive socks, as Bush famously did, and to somberly reflect on their own sense of calling.

Schwarz said Bush's example taught her and her classmates the power and importance of civility. "Students here come from all over the world and the country and thus we have a great diversity of opinion. At the end of the day, though, we all want to do what is best for our country and our world. We remember that and try to emulate our namesake's example when we talk about important issues," she said.  

From all over Texas people had come to pay their respects -- Baytown and Waco, Arlington and Pflugerville -- and from beyond. Fairhope, Alabama. Ardmore, Oklahoma. Chicago. Edmonton, Alberta.

In three large bound books set atop three slanted, deep brown podiums in the main rotunda of the Library and Museum on Monday afternoon, visitors wrote their names and hometowns. Many wrote accompanying condolences to the Bush family, or remembrances. Others wrote simply, "Thank you, Mr. President," including a just-turned-4-year-old from Hearne whose father helped her trace the letters. 

Behind them, director Warren Finch checked in with other staff members. Finch, an archivist by trade, was the library's first employee back in 1993, before the facility had been built. He became director in 2004. Finch said the Bushes were often present in Bryan-College Station in the months between October and May.

"They got to be kind of a fixture," Finch said. "At first, everyone would say excitedly, 'Oh! The president's here!' And then after a while, they were here so much that it got to be like, 'Oh, isn't it nice. The president's here. They were just at an event.' It became normal."

"They were always very courteous and were never demanding -- ever," Finch said. "I don't know how he found the time to do everything he did. The notes he wrote, the letters he wrote, the thank-yous. He was a gentleman. I think the people here in Bryan-College Station most appreciate his generosity and his commitment to public service."

"He was born and raised on the East Coast," Finch added, "but I think he saw himself as a Texan. This is a state where you can come in and make a new life for yourself, and he did ... he lived quite a remarkable life. Quite a remarkable life."

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