HOUSTON — They said farewell to him in Washington with days of tributes and a ceremonious state funeral. On Thursday, former president George H.W. Bush was being honored once more in Texas, the state he adopted as his own, as the services remembering him this week come to a close and his body arrived for burial at his presidential library.
His remains reached College Station, Tex., where he will be buried, via train.
Earlier in the day, friends and relatives gathered at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church for a morning service intended as a celebration of Bush’s life. They stood as it got underway with “America the Beautiful.” In the front row, Bush’s children — including George W. Bush, who followed him in office and eulogized him Wednesday in Washington — stood at rapt attention as the former president’s flag-draped coffin was ushered in.
As the coffin was carried in, silence filled the church, broken only by the sound of heels clicking on the cold concrete and camera shutters snapping. People covered their hearts as the coffin was carried silently past, and once it was at the front of the room, the organ began playing the national anthem, the sounds echoing through the church.
Nearly 1,000 guests had come to the service, according to a Bush spokesman, who said the attendees included numerous members of the Bush family, current and former professional athletes, country singers and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
James A. Baker III, a veteran of Bush’s campaigns and administration, became visibly choked up as he finished delivering his eulogy to his longtime friend.
George P. Bush, the former president’s grandson, described his namesake as being thankful for his country and his opportunities to lead. “George Herbert Walker Bush is the most gracious, most decent, most humble man that I will ever know,” he said. “It’s the honor of a lifetime to share his name.”
The country music group the Oak Ridge Boys told a joke about the president thinking he was a good bass singer and pointed at his son, former president George W. Bush, before performing an acoustic version of “Amazing Grace.” When they finished, mourners clapped, the first time that happened during the service.
When the service ended a little more than an hour later, Bush family members followed his coffin out, shaking the hands of standing mourners on their way out. Some saluted the coffin, while others held their hands over their hearts.
The assembled mourners had gathered in early-morning lines awaiting buses to the church and the service. His dentist was there, describing him as “a wonderful patient, the most giving man.” So was former Houston mayor Bill White, who recalled that after he was elected to lead that city, two of his constituents — the Bushes — invited him and his wife to lunch to ask what they could do to help.
“President Bush was one of those people who showed that politics could still be a noble cause,” said Robert Eckels, a lawyer and former Harris County chief executive. “He was a friend who was always very supportive. He was genuinely concerned about me. He was genuinely concerned about the community.”
The somber farewells in Texas will cap days of tributes to the nation’s 41st president, who died last week at age 94. His body was flown back to Houston on Wednesday after a service at Washington National Cathedral attended by President Trump and the four living former presidents and featuring testimonials praising Bush as a leader and a father.
At the cathedral, and for the days prior when his body was in the U.S. Capitol, Bush was remembered within the soaring trappings of Washington that he had come to know as a commander in chief, vice president and CIA director, among other roles. In Texas, he will be remembered in the place where he chose to start his career after serving in World War II and graduating from Yale University. The entrance to the community where he lived was littered with little American flags and flowers left behind by mourners.
Despite Bush’s New England roots and ties, Texans said they remembered him as one of their own, and his funeral spoke to his long-standing ties there. George and Barbara Bush worshiped at St. Martin’s for more than five decades. On Wednesday, his body was returned there, and the doors opened so that the public could honor Bush while he lay in repose until Thursday morning.
“Now it is our turn to show our respect and support as our congregation, as well as our nation, grieve this loss,” the church said in a statement.
Much as they did in Washington earlier in the week, crowds packed into lines at the church to say goodbye to the former president. A spokesman for the Bush family reported that more than 11,000 people visited the church to pay their respects.
After the casket was carried from St. Martin’s, the funeral attendees crowded outside on the sidewalk.
Bush, a baseball player during his days at Yale, was an avid sports fan. Current and former Houston professional athletes — including Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt, Rockets stars Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo, and Astros Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Nolan Ryan — attended the service, along with former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, actor Chuck Norris and Houston’s top officials and celebrities.
“To me, today is about honoring a guy that is just an absolute icon for our country, and it’s the end of an era,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said of the former president.
Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña called it “a sad day for Houston.”
“Really, we lost a patriot,” he said. “But it’s also an opportunity to celebrate his service. He was in public service for decades. I think the turnout out here signifies exactly what he meant to a lot of us.”
Bush’s body is headed to College Station, home of Texas A&M University, Bush’s presidential library and the government school bearing his name. His remains traveled from Houston to College Station on a train — Bush 4141, an homage to Bush’s status as the 41st president.
In Spring, north of Houston, a couple thousand people had gathered Thursday afternoon to wait for the passing train. Others lined coins along the tracks so that the train could provide them with souvenirs.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I feel this is an honor to be here,” said Leslie Sloan, who works for the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce. She said Bush “was a pivotal part of our country’s history and deserves our respect. He was different. He seemed like an everyman’s man. He was just like my dad or my grandfather. He was just trying to make sure that our country was safe.”
The Union Pacific locomotive was unveiled by the company in 2005 and, 13 years later, made the 70-mile journey with its namesake aboard. Mourners gathered along the tracks, evoking a tradition that dates to President Abraham Lincoln but has fallen dormant in recent decades.
Berman and Bever reported from Washington. Brittney Martin and Ken Hoffman in Houston contributed to this report, which will be updated throughout the day.