Barbara Bush's Caring Heart: A Firsthand Account

Apr 16, 2018
Originally published on April 17, 2018 8:04 pm

Editor's note, updated April 17, 8:03 p.m.: In light of the news that Barbara Bush has died at the age of 92, WVXU politics reporter Howard Wilkinson reflects on a time he met the former first lady. 

When you meet someone in politics who really cares about something, you take notice.

Not just the surface "caring" of political rhetoric written by a campaign speechwriter and delivered in fake sincerity, but someone who cares about certain things deeply, passionately and with every fiber of his or her being. 

Former first lady Barbara Bush is one of those rare people in politics. 

She could be tough as nails – especially if someone attacked one of the politicians in her family. 

And she always, always, looked the part of a first lady in public – a dignified, well-dressed woman with a string of pearls around her neck and perfectly coiffed white hair. 

A tough lady, but one with a kind and caring heart. 

She cares first and foremost for her family – her husband, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, her six children (including a daughter who died tragically at the age of three), her many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. 

How much more caring could one person be than to be married to the same person for 73 years? 

And she cares about the cause she took up as her own – the cause of family literacy. The Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy continues doing good work, attacking the vexing problem of millions of Americans who can neither read nor write. 

And, as I found out one morning in October 1992, she even cared about a little Appalachian boy from southeast Ohio named Andy. 

A boy she had never met and never would meet. 

A little boy she knew only because I told her his story in her hotel suite in downtown Cincinnati.

She was in Cincinnati campaigning for her husband, who was locked in a brutal, uphill and ultimately unsuccessful re-election campaign. 

He was running against a charismatic and unrelenting Democrat in Bill Clinton and a pesky third-party candidate in Ross Perot, who, with his famous charts predicting economic disaster, was making Bush's re-election campaign even tougher. 

But President Bush had something special going for him in Mrs. Bush, who had become something of a mother figure to the nation. 

She had come to Cincinnati for a half-day of campaigning before moving on to Kansas. She had arrived in Cincinnati the night before and was staying in a suite at a downtown hotel. 

I had arranged an interview with Mrs. Bush at the hotel, and I showed up at the appointed hour to be checked out by Secret Service agents. 

I was ushered into the suite and sat in a winged-back chair. Soon, Mrs. Bush, dressed in red with her signature pearl necklace came in and sat in a matching chair beside me. 

She gave me a friendly greeting, but I could tell there was a bit of hesitancy in her voice. After all, I was a reporter, and reporters sometimes wrote things that did not put her husband in a very good light. 

She was clearly a bit wary. 

I decided to start easy. 

I asked her to tell me about the literacy foundation and the work it did to teach both parents and children to read and write. 

"If we continue to have tens of millions of people in this country who are not literate, we are never going to solve all the other problems we have,'' she said. 

I mentioned that when I was in college at Ohio University I volunteered as a reading tutor through a program run by the United Methodist Church in Athens. 

She perked up. 

"Really?" she said. "Tell me more."

I told her that I was assigned to the Coolville Elementary School, about 20 miles east of Athens in coal-mining country. I didn't have a car, but the church lent me an old Ford Pinto to drive down there two days a week. 

Coolville was just a bump in the road and surrounded by families who had worked in the coal mines and the strip mines. Many were out of work. 

I was assigned to work with a fourth-grader named Andy. Many of the kids at Coolville Elementary were like Andy – he could not read or write, except for a handful of words he recognized. 

The classrooms were so crowded that the teachers could not give him the individual instruction he needed. They just kept passing him on to the next grade. 

My job was to pull Andy aside for a couple of hours and work with him on simple, first grade reading skills. 

Mrs. Bush asked me about his family. 

I told him that Andy's father was an out-of-work coal miner; his mother drove to Athens to work as a housekeeper in a motel. His mother could read, but his father could not. Neither of Andy's siblings were old enough to read yet. 

"So, he was in a situation where he could not get the instruction at school and it wasn't much better at home,'' Mrs. Bush said. "There are so many like that."

That, I told her, was exactly Andy's situation. 

I told I could also see that Andy wasn't getting enough to eat, so I would stop in Athens and get him a sandwich and some milk he could have while we worked on his reading. 

"I really wasn't supposed to do that,'' I told Mrs. Bush. 

She just smiled. 

"You did the right thing,'' she said. 

I told her that I really believed that Andy looked forward to seeing me and thought of me as his best friend, because I didn't judge him because he couldn't read. 

We worked very hard through the school year. Gradually, his reading skills improved. When he would get through a particularly difficult sentence, he would look up at up with the biggest grin on his face. 

"That kind of thing makes it all worthwhile,'' the first lady said. 

At the end of the year, I had Andy reading at a fourth-grade level. His parents were very proud. His teacher was amazed. 

I asked his parents if they would mind if I took Andy up to the Columbus Zoo to celebrate his accomplishment. They said yes. It was the greatest adventure Andy had ever experienced. 

"I'm so glad for that little boy,'' Mrs. Bush told me. "You should be proud. What you did turned Andy's life around."

I sometimes wonder where Andy is and what he would think if he knew that the first lady of the United States had taken an interest in the story of a little Appalachian boy. 

But that is Barbara Bush's way.

"Tales from the Trail" is Howard Wilkinson's weekly column that gives a behind-the-scenes look at his more than 40 years of covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals and business of politics on a local, state and national level. Read more here

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