More than anything, Barbara Bush wanted everyone to have a chance to succeed. To that end, she turned literacy into the cause of her life, relentlessly championing reading as a means to a better life.
Just two days after her death, the former First Lady and fierce advocate of universal literacy was honored at her beloved Celebration of Reading. The event had long been planned for Thursday night in Houston, but A Celebration of Reading was the perfect way to celebrate the life and tireless service of the woman who started it all.
Guests started gathering outside the Hobby Center before 5 pm, well in advance of the event’s 6:30 start. Many women donned blue — Barbara Bush’s favorite color — and pearls, her signature accessory.
James A. Baker III was the first to speak about Barbara Bush, his friend for decades. He said he had promised the family he would keep things upbeat, but he would absolutely not don a pearl necklace.
Baker honored Barbara Bush with the same sharp humor she was famed for. “As we say here in Texas, Barbara Pierce Bush was strong chili,” he told the crowd. “She was a rare blend of East Coast upbringing, oil patch, international diplomacy and Washington politics, with a generous helping of mom’s apple pie thrown in.”
Barbara always kept track of the score, but she rarely tried to settle it, Baker added.
The former Secretary of State and White House chief of staff also addressed many people’s unspoken worry — how 93-year-old George H.W. Bush is doing now that his wife of 73 years is gone. Baker said that Barbara’s own response would have been simple if she could have given it: “That her husband would be alright, because he’s been overcoming big challenges all his life.”
Baker recalled Barbara Bush saying the American Dream was about equal opportunity for everyone who works hard. There was no equal chance to succeed without the ability to read and write, and she set out to change that, “one person at a time. And we loved her for that,” he noted.
Of course, that’s the purpose of this night which benefits the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation. More than $2 million was raised at the Hobby Center. Again. Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale donated $150,000.
But this 24th Celebration of Reading also was about honoring Barbara Bush’s lifetime of work.
As usual, major authors came to Sarofim Hall to share their own experiences with reading, snippets of their own writing and their insight into the impact that a love of reading can have. Novelist Clive Cussler, journalist Candice Millard, futurist Christina “CK” Kerley, Ohio Governor John Kasich and comedian Jim Gaffigan all spoke.
But alongside those voices, it was an intimate evening, brimming with personal anecdotes from friends and family, prayer and glimpses into Barbara Bush’s final days. It’s true that she held her husband’s hand and kept her loved ones laughing until the very end. And when her friends called, she’d crack, “Don’t believe the news! I’m still here!” into the phone.
To the crowd tonight, she wasn’t only a political matriarch, an unmatched wit and a champion of literacy. She was “Bar,” and she was “Ganny.”
The Bush Family Remembers Their Rock
Family members came up and spoke from the heart. Grandson Pierce Bush said that Barbara Bush “was the woman who shaped me really more than anyone else into the man I am today.”
Maria Bush, Neil Bush’s wife, fought through tears to tell the story of Barbara Bush’s last day. The electricity went out across the house. “I thought ‘She’s just shut off her own oxygen,’ ” Andrews laughed. But as Barbara Bush drew her last breaths, the lights all came back on.
Barbara Bush’s awe-inspiring work in advancing literacy has ripple effects, Kasich said. “Barbara Bush has done something unique. She’s unified the country through her service and her dedication,” he said.
The Rev. Russell Jones Levenson Jr., the Bushes’ personal pastor, was the last to speak. The priest opened up through his reflections, shedding light on Barbara Bush’s final days.
“Her life was an open book,” he said, and her life was also full of books. In her final days, alongside prayer, there were many reading sessions. Levenson read two chapters of Little Women aloud and Psalms 1 through 48.
“At 48, they all start to sound a lot alike. And I left out all the parts about wickedness,” Levenson laughed.
He recalled clearly one night when he was told that Barbara wanted him to stay downstairs and pray with her husband. For his part, George H. W. Bush told Levenson to go upstairs and pray with his wife.
“I’m not sure who outranks who,” Levenson said. He climbed upstairs to pray with Barbara. After they prayed, he got up to leave, shutting the door behind him. He heard Barbara call out, “Tell him I adore him.”
All stood for a prayer at the end of the night. Levenson praised Barbara Bush’s smile, wit and wisdom as the crowd remained silent. A heartening celebration came soon after with a song by Mary Sarah. The night ended on a high note, with Victoria White, Marquist Taylor and the Houston Gospel Choir belting out “Amazing Grace.” A slideshow played behind them. The last slide said it all.
“Barbara Bush. June 8, 1925 – April 17, 2018. Her literacy legacy endures.”
Check back for a full photo gallery and social coverage of the 24th annual Celebration of Reading in the coming days at PaperCity. For more on the remarkable legacy of Barbara Bush, click here.