The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Always one of us’: President George H.W. Bush comes home to Texas for the last time

Artist Theo Ponchaveli works on a mural of former president George H.W. Bush on Wednesday in Richardson, Tex. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)
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HOUSTON — Seventy years after George H.W. Bush arrived in West Texas in a red Studebaker, determined to forge his own path in the rough-and-tumble oil industry and move beyond his patrician East Coast roots, he returned to his adopted home state Wednesday for the last time.

After a somber service at Washington National Cathedral, the casket carrying the body of the 41st president of the United States was flown to Houston on the presidential aircraft. As the sun set on a chilly Houston evening, hundreds waited in line to say a last goodbye to the president as he lay “in repose” overnight at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where he and his late wife, Barbara, worshiped for a half century.

"He was a great man from the Greatest Generation, and he served his country well," said Julie Rooksberry, 43, an Austin resident who brought her three children to pay respect to Bush and teach them about a more civil time in U.S. history. "All they've known is animosity and back-and-forth in politics," she said.

Former president George H.W. Bush was a frequent customer of Molina's Cantina, a Tex-Mex restaurant in Houston, for more than 35 years. (Video: Melissa Macaya, Nicole Ellis/The Washington Post)

Bush, who died Friday at age 94, had lived in relative quiet with Barbara in Houston’s leafy Tanglewood community since leaving office in 1993, defeated in his quest for a second term by the upstart Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton.

Bush and Barbara Bush — who died in April at age 92 — have been fixtures in their adopted hometown, raising funds for literacy and cancer research, dining without fanfare in strip-mall restaurants, and rooting from behind home plate for their beloved baseball teams, occasionally smooching for the “Kiss Cam.” Just a few weeks before his death, Bush was strong enough to venture out for a bowl of his favorite oyster stew with his friend and former secretary of state James A. Baker III.

“They were Houston’s first family,” said David Jones, chief executive of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation. “They loved Houston and Houston loved them back. People embraced them wherever they went.”

Though Bush was born in Massachusetts and spent summers on the family compound in Maine, most in the Lone Star State consider the Bushes their own. There was a palpable sense of grief in Houston on Wednesday, its streets quiet for the national day of mourning, flags at half-staff, a sense that a golden era had come to a close.

“To me, to regular people, he was always one of us,” said Judy Pierce, 69, of Houston, who on Wednesday placed a wreath at a memorial statue built for Bush in the city’s downtown. Mourners left colorful socks to honor the president’s penchant for flashy footwear. “You would see him out and he would always talk to you. He did a lot of good things. Some things didn’t turn out the way he wanted to, but that happens to all presidents. And he never did put on airs, you know?”

When Bush arrived in the West Texas town of Odessa in 1948, he was a decorated World War II Navy aviator who had just graduated from Yale University. He had married his high school sweetheart and the couple had a young son when they ventured west to a flat landscape of oil derricks and what Barbara Bush recalled as a hot new world away from the wide porches and manicured lawns of their privileged youth. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, was a Connecticut investment banker who would serve two terms in the U.S. Senate.

To Bush, Texas seemed to be a place of limitless opportunity.

“He was raised in New England, so he never quite shed some of his New England reserve,” said Charles Foster, an immigration attorney in Houston who was a friend and supporter of Bush. “He was a good old boy in a way his father couldn’t be. He liked the can-do spirit of Texas, its quasi-frontier attitude, the feeling that anything is possible, you can come down here and start all over again.”

As Bush learned the ropes of the oil business — eventually starting his own independent oil company with a stake from his family — Barbara stayed at home raising little “Georgie” and daughter Pauline Robinson, known as Robin, who died at age 3 in 1953 of leukemia. The still-grieving family moved to Houston in 1959, and the clan grew, with Jeb, Neil, Marvin and finally Dorothy, known as Doro.

Politics beckoned; Texas at the time was beginning to turn red after decades of Democratic blue. Bush was elected first the chairman of the Harris County Republicans, and then to two terms in the U.S. House. Bush was often spotted in Houston’s Memorial Park, jogging and pressing the flesh.

Once elected president, Bush helped showcase Houston as a city coming into its own and growing increasingly cosmopolitan, bringing world leaders to Texas and funneling events here, such as the 1992 Republican National Convention.

Yet Democrats and the media had fun with his image as a wannabe cowboy during his campaigns. He was derided as the Connecticut Yankee from Houston or the Texan without a Stetson. The late speaker of the house, Jim Wright, used to say Bush was the only Texan he knew who put lobster in his chili.

Back then, when The Washington Post asked Bush whether he was a New Englander or a Texan, he said: “I’m hybrid. I’m enriched by two cultures. I have two incarnations, so to speak.”

But that was in 1980, with decades of Lone Star living — and a five-year governorship of the state for his son, George W. Bush — to come.

“There’s a bumper sticker that says, ‘I’m not from Texas but I got here as soon as I could,’ and the Bushes very much felt that way,” said Mark K. Updegrove, a historian who wrote a book called “The Last Republicans” about Bush father and son. “Texas was home whether they were in Washington, New York or China.”

After returning to Houston in 1993, the Bushes tried to keep life low key, which wasn’t always possible. He reluctantly permitted a private group to erect a memorial statue in his honor in downtown Houston, which sits overlooking the languid water of the Buffalo Bayou, which he helped save while a young congressman.

“He didn’t want it to be grandiose,” Jones said. “He hated the word legacy. He always said, ‘Don’t talk to me about the ‘L’ word.’ His mother had taught him to always be modest and don’t talk about yourself, don’t be a braggadocio.”

The couple’s active life began to slow in recent years, friends say. Drayton McLane, the billionaire former owner of the Astros, saw them both last Christmas at their customary holiday meal at Cafe Annie, and it was clear Barbara Bush was struggling, he said.

“Barbara told my wife Elizabeth several times she hoped she passed before he did because she didn’t know if she could live without him,” he said.

And so she did, in April. Six thousand locals came to her funeral, where her husband made one of his last public appearances. He will be buried next to his wife and daughter Robin on Thursday at a gravesite at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Texas A&M University, after a train procession takes him on a final journey through the farms and brush of the countryside he called home.

Brittney Martin, a freelance journalist based in Texas, contributed to this report.