Some 1,500 guests filled the pews of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston on Saturday, including former presidents and first ladies, and family and friends who gathered to celebrate Barbara Bush’s 92 extraordinary years of life.
Seated front and center, confined to a wheelchair but sporting socks embroidered with books to celebrate his wife’s dedication to literacy, was Barbara’s husband of 73 years: former president George H.W. Bush.
Between eulogies delivered by their son, Jeb, and presidential historian Jon Meacham, the funeral was as much a celebration of the Bush’s marriage as it was of the family’s matriarch.
Barbara’s death marked the end of the longest presidential marriage in American history, followed only by Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, who have been married for 71 years. John and Abigail Adams — married for 54 years — held the record for much of American history. (Like Barbara Bush, Abigail was wife to one president and mother to another.)
Barbara’s widower, whose own health has been in decline, remains America’s longest-living president, having surpassed Gerald Ford, who died at 93 years and 165 days, last November. George will celebrate his 94th birthday in June.
Barbara Pierce first met George H.W. Bush at a Christmas dance in Greenwich, Conn., in 1941. Barbara, then only 16, attended boarding school in South Carolina, and George, all of 17, went to school in Massachusetts, so the two began a long-distance courtship. At age 19, Barbara left the elite Smith College to be with him.
Not yet married, Barbara and George were soon separated by World War II, relying on handwritten letters as the only bridge between them. In a 2011 interview for the Today Show with granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager, George Bush said those missives “were everything” to them. Stationed aboard a ship in the Pacific as a young Navy pilot, he said he would eagerly wait for mail call and to hear someone yell “Bush!”, signaling another one of Barbara’s cherished letters had arrived.
In one reply to his “Darling Bar,” dated Dec. 12, 1943, the future president wrote, “I love you precious with all my heart, and to know that you love me, means my life.”
On Sept. 2, 1944, Bush was shot down over Chichi Jima in the Pacific Ocean. Not long after, Barbara received a letter from George assuring her that “all was well.” But, Barbara told Hager, the letter was dated before George’s plane had been hit.
George survived the plane crash, but the letters from Barbara he carried with him did not. George soon came home, and the two were married on Jan. 6, 1945, while George was home on leave. They had six children together and endured the heartbreaking death of one of them: daughter Robin, who died of leukemia at the age of 3.
While eulogizing his mother on Saturday, Jeb Bush listed the many moves Barbara and George made during their marriage, through George’s endeavors in the oil business to his decades-long political career. From New Haven to Beijing to the White House, their addresses changed, but Jeb assured “their love was a constant in our lives.”
“Our family has had a front-row seat for the most amazing love story,” Jeb said.
From the podium, Jeb recalled another letter George wrote Barbara on their anniversary in 1994.
“Will you marry me?” George wrote. “Oops, I forgot, we did that 49 years ago. I was very happy on that day in 1945, but I’m even happier today. You have given me joy that few men know … I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.”
He continued: “Mom used to tell me, ‘Now George, don’t walk ahead.’ Little did she know I was only trying to keep up, keep up with Barbara Pierce, from Rye, New York. I love you.”
Jeb said that the last time Barbara went into the hospital, he thinks George got sick on purpose so he could be in the hospital alongside her. Jeb described his father looking “like hell,” dependent on a breathing mask, his hair disheveled, but steadfastly holding Barbara’s hand.
Jeb said that when Barbara finally opened her eyes, she looked at George and said, “My god George, you are devastatingly handsome!” The doctors and nurses had to leave the room to keep from crying.
In his last conversation with his mother, Jeb said he asked her how she felt about dying.
“I don’t want to leave your dad,” Barbara said. “But I know I will be in a beautiful place.”
Looking out onto the pews during the funeral, Meacham recalled sitting with George and Barbara at their family home in Maine in July 2017. That sunny day, talk turned to World War II, Meacham said, and to the day when George was shot down over the Pacific and two of his crew mates became casualties of war.
“You must have been saved for a reason. I know there had to be a reason,” Meacham recalled Barbara saying.
For a brief moment, George sat silent, Meacham said, before raising his left hand and pointing his finger across the table at Barbara.
“You,” George said hoarsely. “You were the reason.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story said the Bushes had five children together. They had six.
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