Barbara Bush recalled as ‘ambassador for Houston’s friendliness’
Then-Astros owner Drayton McLane expected fans to applaud and gawk when he first invited former First Lady Barbabra Bush and President George H.W. Bush to watch a game at the Astrodome in 1993.
He expected the warm welcomes to fade after the couple made a tradition of going to 40 to 50 games a year. They never did.
“Just before every game, they would go sit down in front, and everyone would stand up and applaud. When they left during seventh inning, everyone would stand up and applaud again,” McLane said. “I’ve never been around anyone who people respected in such a way.”
As funeral preparations are being made to honor Barbara Bush following her death at 92 Tuesday, Houstonians reflected on the former First Lady’s influence on the city and recalled their own encounters with the matriarch of the Bush political dynasty.
Jenee Bobbora, a mother who lives in the Galleria, remembered entire audiences rising to their feet to applaud Bush as she entered the Hobby Center for Performing Arts.
“She wasn’t so dainty that she insisted on being behind the scenes,” Bobbora said. “She had a decency about her, like she was an ambassador for Houston’s friendliness.”
Maeir Vili, who lives blocks away from the Bushes’ home, recalled seeing Bush at a gas station near his West Houston neighborhood several times. He said he was impressed by her low profile and the way she treated those around her.
“She talked to everyone in the parking lot and in the store,” Vili said. “She was an ordinary woman who didn’t need to be treated differently.”
Others echoed the sentiment, recalling Bush as a woman who fostered personal connections rather than a larger-than-life figure.
She was one of them. She was a Houstonian.
“The Brits have their royals, but she could be considered our treasure,” said Sevena Felton, who spent part of Wednesday praying for Bush and her family at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. “Democrat, Republican, everyone here loved her.”
The city’s love for Barbara Bush was evident wherever she went.
Folks would stand and applaud when she entered a room, whether it was 40,000 people at Minute Maid Park or 30 diners in Christie’s Seafood Restaurant.
Maria Christie, manager of the West Houston establishment, said the Bushes were frequent customers, often ordering gumbo, shrimp and oysters on the half shell.
Diners tried not to gawk at the former first couple, Christie said, but some could not contain their emotions.
“We had one lady, she was so touched, she caught them in corner of the eye and started weeping. She said she felt so honored to see them in person,” Christie said. “She just got to the benches near the entrance and waited until they went to leave. They were so gracious, and she was able to thank them.”
It was the couple’s willingness to connect with everyday Houstonians that people recalled Wednesday.
“Half of the people in Houston may have a handwritten note or autograph from H.W. or Barbara,” said Jim McGrath, who has worked as the Bushes’ spokesman since they returned to Houston. “They were always happy to take the time to acknowledge a wedding or graduation, or to write a heartfelt note on a menu for someone who came up to them at a restaurant.”
Their down-to-earth kindness to strangers is only one reason Houstonians became enamored with the former first couple.
Barbara Bush spearheaded efforts to help children read, continuing her work with the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy she founded as First Lady. She expanded those efforts locally and became heavily involved in the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, founded in her honor by son Neil.
That work always impressed Megan Donaldson, a relocation specialist with a local real estate company who heads an after-school program for students in the northwest Houston neighborhood of Acres Homes.
“A lot of folks get rich or successful in Houston but forget about the less fortunate,” Donaldson said. “You could see her humility, you could see how she related to kids.”
Bob Schulz, who served as the chairperson for Friends of the Houston Public Library, grew emotional when he spoke about Bush’s charitable work.
“Her unconditional love showed through,” Schulz said, his voice breaking with emotion. “Her love transformed people’s hearts.”
The Bushes’ personalities also set them apart from other political power couples.
Gallery Furniture owner Jim McIngvale recalled a time when Barbara Bush came to one of his stores to buy a mattress. After she asked the price of one model, she pretended to faint when he read the price tag.
“Mrs. Bush was such a fun person,” McInvagle said. “She and Mr. Bush are two of my favorite people of all time.”
Elyse Lanier, who was married to former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier, said Barbara Bush did more than help raise the city’s profile as it blossomed into the country’s fourth largest. She adopted it as her own, caring for its residents as if they were her family, working tirelessly to improve the lives of Houstonians across the region.
“I think she has had such an impact that it will live on,” Lanier said. “Her spirit will stay with us.”