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Barbara Bush Leaves Legacy As Literacy Champion, ‘America’s Grandmother’

The wife of President George H.W. Bush and mother of President George W. Bush died at her home in Houston. She was 92.

Doug Mills/AP
First Lady Barbara Bush poses with her dog Millie in 1990. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Former First Lady Barbara Bush – wife of President George H.W. Bush and mother of President George W. Bush – has died at her home in Houston. She was 92.

Mrs. Bush was her husband's indispensable partner. The couple made their political debut virtually at the same time, when George Bush ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1964.

From a 1964 "George Bush for Senate" commercial: "Both George and Barbara Bush campaign hard during the week. On Sunday, however, they try to be with their children after church services at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, where Barbara teaches Sunday school."

Her work as an educator carried over into public life. She used her platform as first lady to combat illiteracy. Julie Baker Finck, president of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, says Mrs. Bush's advocacy changed the conversation about the issue.

"People know the name Barbara Bush," says Finck. "They have the utmost respect for the name Barbara Bush. And I won't discount the fact that her name and her legacy has been what has brought people together."

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Mrs. Bush strove to avoid controversy. But in the spring of 1990, she found herself in a battle on the front page of The New York Times. Wellesley College invited the first lady to speak at their commencement. Students at the women's college protested, demanding a speaker whose achievements were independent from her husband's.

"Now I know your first choice today was Alice Walker, known for The Color Purple. Instead you got me, known for the color of my hair," Mrs. Bush said in her commencement address.

The first lady weathered the storm and, in the end, delivered a speech that would become famous. "Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps and preside over the White House as the president's spouse," she said, "and I wish him well."

In between Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush brought her own priorities to the job of first lady.

"It's not really a job. It's just sort of an expectation," says Jean Becker, who served as Mrs. Bush's deputy press secretary during her White House years.

Becker, who has been the elder President Bush's chief of staff since 1994, says Mrs. Bush navigated the expectation with discipline and grace. By putting her family first, and because of her refusal to color her hair, Barbara Bush was often called America's grandmother. She didn't love the title, but she earned it, especially during the Gulf War.

"She decided she would travel all around visiting military bases, where a lot of troops had been deployed," Becker says. "And I hate to tell her, she was America's grandmother. Because, oh my gosh, she spent hours hugging wives and husbands and children. It was wonderful."

The future first lady was born Barbara Pierce in 1925. She grew up in Rye, New York, a suburb of New York City. She met her future husband at a dance when she was 16, and the two quickly fell in love. Their marriage would span 73 years, longer than any other presidential couple in history.

Her third son, Neil Bush, believes that her greatest legacy will be the love she shared with her husband. "She and my dad both set a great example for others," he says. "How to be loving and committed husband and wife towards one another. And people, you know, whether they knew it or not, they were being kind of led in a direction that was really positive for family."

George and Barbara Bush had six children. Their daughter Robin died of leukemia at age three. In addition to Neil Bush, their surviving children include their sons George W., Jeb, and Marvin, and their daughter Dorothy. Mrs. Bush is only the second woman in American history to be both the wife and the mother of presidents. The first was Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams and mother of John Quincy Adams.


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