Last week we experienced a sad but in some ways welcome respite from our current day-to-day noise as we celebrated the consequential life of George Herbert Walker Bush. I believe it was important for the country to retrospectively contemplate where our nation has been and where we are headed – all through the principled eyes of our 41st president.
For the third time this year, an icon of public service has passed from the earth. When the Bush family gathered in April to honor their matriarch, Barbara Bush, I felt inspired by the former First Lady’s many good works, especially in the area of literacy. From her family and friends, I gained a new sense of admiration for her unflinching forthrightness and candor.
Then three months ago we said farewell to John McCain. At that time, I found great inspiration in the senator’s words about party over principle, perspective in political defeat, and personal preparation in facing his own mortality.
However, I surprised myself last week to have found my greatest inspiration, not in quotations or anecdotes, but in images that presented themselves following the passing of President Bush. Poised in front of the TV, prepared with pen and paper to jot down any number of admirable comments from those who eulogized him, I accumulated but a single page of notes.
Oh, I heard an entire list of words used again and again, nouns such as family, faith, friendship as well as service, courage, humility, integrity, loyalty, honesty, decency. There were adjectives, too: gracious, noble, tempered, kinder, gentler.
But, in the end, I had uncharacteristically recorded just one sentence from the eulogy by lifelong friend and colleague James Baker: “George Bush was not considered a skilled speaker, but he demonstrated the eloquence of his deeds by carving them into the hard granite of history.”
My notes also contained the titles of several moving musical pieces that filled two grand churches – and my living room – performed by orchestras, choirs, soloists, and bands. I so enjoyed hearing “Fairest Lord Jesus,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” “This Is My Country.” The Oak Ridge Boys made good on their promise to sing a President Bush favorite by performing “Amazing Grace” a cappella. And there was my favorite, “The Lord’s Prayer,” by an Irish tenor in D.C. and a country western star in Texas.
Mostly, however, this passing, this life celebration became for me an album of memorable images. We all watched as the Bush clan accompanied the former president with the formidable resume of service to the nation – known to them simply as Dad or Gampy – on his final trips by plane and train across the country and back again.
I was also struck by images of the steady line of mourners passing his casket in the rotunda of the Capitol. As I watched the live feed on C-SPAN, I expected the well-known political figures from both major parties, current and former office holders, family members, and personal friends I saw there. I was particularly touched by the group of wheelchair-bound individuals who circled the casket to honor the former president’s signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
But it was the image of just-plain people filing past the flag-draped casket that stuck in my mind: tourists with backpacks, groups of office workers on lunch break, wide-eyed children and older folks, and everyone in between. Day and night, they came to pay their respects.
There was the dignity and precision of the young military men and women keeping watch over the former Commander-in-Chief. They presented an encouraging image of the newest generation of citizens willing to defend our country as well as to protect one of the last heroes of the Greatest Generation.
Too, there was the impressive tableau of living presidents and their spouses, a tribute to our nation’s orderly transfer of power: the Carters, the Clintons, the Obamas, the Trumps – all just across the aisle from Bush 41’s namesake and successor, Bush 43.
There are, however, three images that will endure for me, even as the events themselves begin to fade. How we all loved Sully, the yellow lab service dog, who stayed by his master until the very end. That remarkable canine point of light in President Bush’s final months is now headed to his next mission, serving other veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Unforgettable, too, was Bob Dole’s final tribute to his political rival and fellow veteran. Laboriously helped from his wheelchair and steadied by his aide, this war hero found the strength to stand long enough to salute another war hero. Such a disciplined gesture of honor and respect.
But it is a third image I will never forget, of the younger President Bush overcome by the moment. I felt such kinship, such connection as he choked back his sorrow – we Boomers have been doing the very same thing for quite some time now, bidding farewell to our own members of the Greatest Generation.
President Bush, thank you for expressing our own sentiments so sincerely and lovingly: Dad, we’re going to miss you. Through our tears, let us see the blessings of knowing and loving you, the best father a son or daughter could have. And in our grief, let us smile knowing that you are once again holding Mom’s hand.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.