I met Barbara Bush in 1989 when she agreed to host a children's radio show, Mrs. Bush's Story Time — first conceived by Philadelphia's own Children's Literacy Initiative. Even though I had worked with President George H.W. Bush during his visits to Pennsylvania, I was nervous about meeting the first lady.
We were led into the White House for a meeting, and there she was, sporting her signature blue suit and faux pearls. My butterflies immediately dissipated. Why? Because Barbara Bush welcomed us with a warm greeting, effortless conversation, and a palpable humility that put everyone at ease.
As Story Time became more popular, I had many opportunities to see that she was always gracious, a quality that endeared her to millions during and after her White House years.
For example, in 1989, she received the Communicator of the Year Award from the Philadelphia chapter of American Women in Radio and Television. She refused to have a "green room" at the hotel because she didn't want any "special attention." As the 500 guests arrived, and she waited to take photos with the VIPs, she mentioned that she knew some people were intimidated by meeting a first lady, so she always tried to make them feel comfortable. Lesson No. 1: Realize that you are not the center of the universe.
Later, as we sat next to each other on the dais, we chatted away like two old friends. She chided me for overpaying for designer lipstick – she bought hers at the drugstore. She said her husband mentioned that she was becoming more popular than him because of Millie's Book. "I've reached the highest pinnacle maybe in the world, and my dog makes more money than me," he jokingly told her. And she confessed that she stopped coloring her hair because the whole process made too much of a mess in the bathroom. Lesson No. 2: Never take yourself too seriously.
I often accompanied her to an elementary school, where she would read to children, and was truly honored to be part of the early days of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. But George and Barbara Bush, without fanfare, supported many other causes, including C-Change, which fostered collaboration in the fight against cancer. Their daughter, Robin, died of leukemia when she was 3.
That loss was much on Barbara Bush's mind when I interviewed her for a magazine story a few years ago. "After Robin's death, every person was more valuable than before," she told me. "She died more than 60 years ago. Isn't that amazing? She'd be a little old lady now."
It was a wide-ranging conversation, on her health, politics, civility, dogs – and the most important things in life. "To me, faith, family, and friends, in that close order," she said. "Maybe I might put my husband first. When some of my children asked me why I felt that way I would tell them that he and I would lay down our lives for them."
Because of their commitment to veterans and military families, George and Barbara Bush each wrote a foreword to books I co-authored on wounded warriors. They even hosted those veterans at their home in Kennebunkport, Maine. During our visit last fall, he was in a wheelchair and she got around in a scooter and needed oxygen. But they made the effort, offering their love and support for those who have sacrificed so much for our country. They didn't even bat an eye when the screech owl brought by one vet left an unwelcome deposit on the president's khakis.
I'm sad today, but my heart is full of decades of memories given to me by Barbara Bush, a remarkable, gracious woman who always made time to share a part of her life with me.