George H.W. Bush was a son of Greenwich
GREENWICH — To the world he was “Mr. President.” In later years, after his own son acquired that title, he became “41” or “H.W.”
Congressman, CIA director, envoy to China, ambassador to the United Nations.
George Herbert Walker Bush wore all of those titles in a political career of uncommon accomplishment.
Before them all, he was simply “Poppy” to family and friends in Greenwich.
Bush died Friday at the age of 94 — less than eight months after his wife, Barbara Bush.
Not exactly a native son — he was born in Milton, Mass., on June 12, 1924 — George H.W. Bush came to Greenwich as an infant. He grew up here, the second oldest of five siblings in a 1903 Victorian with a wraparound porch at 15 Grove Lane.
“I think of Greenwich as home and friends,” Bush told Greenwich Time before the 1980 New Hampshire presidential primary, won by eventual GOP nominee and running mate Ronald Reagan. “The change is amazing. I guess I remember Greenwich as more of a village ... the Pickwick Theater, the Franklin Simon store and the railroad station. When I was in high school, we used to go on the train a lot to go to hockey games.”
He was named for his maternal grandfather, George Herbert Walker, who lived here for many years. Dorothy Bush, the president’s mother, called her father “Pop.” Her son became “Poppy.”
In Greenwich, the future leader of the free world got his first taste of government service, watching his father moderate the Representative Town Meeting.
It was here that a young boy’s brashness was sanded off, in lessons that could sting, and a Yankee humility instilled that would set him apart from Washington circles and endear him to millions of Americans.
And it was in Greenwich that leadership qualities first took root and began to grow, qualities that would carry him to acclaim on the playing field and in the military, and to the most powerful seat on the planet.
His parents sent the young George, by limousine, to Greenwich Country Day School, where a note from his fifth-grade teacher on his report card proved to be prophetic.
“One day, Bush will become a leader,” the teacher wrote.
“I think they thought it was a great school, and they proved to be right,” Bush said of his parents during a 2009 interview with Country Day Headmaster Adam Rohdie at Bush’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine. “They liked what they saw, they liked the teachers. It was a great experience for us.”
It was at Country Day that the young Bush first displayed the athletic ability for which he would become known. His favorite sports were soccer, football and baseball.
“I just couldn’t wait to get out there when the games would start,” he told Rohdie.
Some of his earliest life lessons were learned through sports, many of which came from his coach at Country Day, Unc Hillard.
“I clipped some guy over at Rippowam, blind-sided him from behind,” reads a Bush quote on the school’s website. “And I remember to this day, Unc said, ‘That was a cowardly thing you did. Never hit a guy from behind.’”
Bush was not just a force on the playing fields. He sang in an a cappella group known as the Double Octets and was often called upon to introduce the songs, which he credited with helping his public speaking. There was one problem with singing, however.
“I couldn’t carry a tune,” he told Rohdie.
“We’d go to Greenwich Academy and they would say, ‘Now we will sing “Little Eyes, I love you,”’” he recalled. “And I’d step back and sing, ‘Little eyes, I love you.’ I remember it very clearly. I don’t think I was officially ensconced as the leader, but none of the other kids wanted to do it. And I’ve never forgotten it.”
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The patriarch of the political clan was Prescott Bush Sr., a Yale-educated investment banker who honed his leadership skills as moderator of the RTM for 17 years before going on to serve in the U.S. Senate for 11 years.
“I was a late starter in politics because we weren’t such a political family when I was growing up,” Bush wrote in his 1988 memoir “Leaning Forward.” “Dad was a Republican and was active in state party fundraising, but the subject of politics seldom came up at family gatherings. Once a week he would sit in as moderator of the Greenwich town meeting, but that was more of a civic than political commitment.”
The elder Bush, first elected to the Senate in 1952, became known for diplomatic talents that helped hold disparate factions of a fragmented Republican Party together, though among his noted acts was engineering Joseph McCarthy’s 1954 censure in the Senate. To this day, the state Republican Party’s highest honor is named for him.
“I think that his father set a wonderful example for him,” Debbie Walker Stapleton, a first cousin of George H.W. Bush and longtime Greenwich resident, told Greenwich Time in 2014. “That definitely influenced him to lead a life of public service, to make a difference. He felt strongly that this was a calling that he would excel in.”
But by many accounts, the true leader of the household was Dorothy Walker Bush, the daughter of a prominent banker who was president of the United States Golf Association — the Walker Cup is named for him.
She was active in the Red Cross in Greenwich and she was co-founder of the Greenwich Shelter for Children on Arch Street, which became Family Centers.
“Mother’s criticism of her children, like Dad’s was always constructive, never negative,” George H.W. Bush once wrote. “They were our biggest boosters, always there when we needed them. They believed in an old-fashioned way of bringing up a family — generous measures of both love and discipline.”
But in an article he wrote for Greenwich Time in 1985, Bush painted a bit of a different picture of his mother.
“Every mother has her own style,” he wrote. “My mother’s was a little like an Army drill sergeant’s. Dad was the commanding general, make no mistake about that, but Mother was the one out there day in and day out shaping the troops.”
A sharp remark would remind the children when they were bragging. When George was 8 years old, he explained to his mother that he had lost a tennis match because he was “off his game.”
“You don’t have a game,” she shot back.
But Bush also described his childhood as filled with laughter, led by a mother who often was overcome by what her children termed “The Giggles.”
Older brother Prescott Bush Jr. once recalled the story of how he and George fell asleep in Christ Church on one hot Sunday, until the Rev. Alfred Wilson chose for his sermon the biblical text “Comfort me with apples.”
“Well, George and I woke up, and we looked at each other and exploded with laughter,” Prescott told Greenwich Time in 1991.
George wrote about what happened after that.
“Mother looked at us severely, and that quieted us, until suddenly the whole pew began to wiggle and shake, and there was Mother, attacked by ‘The Giggles.’ Of course, looking at her broke us all up, and the whole Bush family beat a fast and ignominious retreat, vanishing outside into gales of laughter.”
Navy, Barbara and Yale
After Country Day, Bush attended Phillips Academy Andover and, at 18, joined the U.S. Navy, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross as a Navy pilot in World War II.
He also, at the age of 18 or 19, attended a Christmas dance at the Round Hill Club in Greenwich. There, he met a 16-year-old distant cousin of President Franklin Pierce who came from neighboring Rye, N.Y. Her name was Barbara Pierce. They tried to waltz together, but, as the story goes, he was not much of a dancer.
Again, no matter. The marriage of George and Barbara Bush lasted 73 years, and bore six children.
After the war, Bush returned to Connecticut, and enrolled in Yale University. There, he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and captained and played first base for a baseball team that lost twice to California in the championship game of the College World Series, in 1947 and 1948. When Babe Ruth presented his papers to the school in 1948, they were received by the future president, in his baseball uniform on Yale’s diamond.
Also at Yale, Bush was one of 15 juniors tapped for Skull and Bones, the university’s oldest and most secret senior society, in 1947. His father was a member before him, as would be his son, future President George W. Bush, after him.
“George Bush is exactly loyal to other friends as those who happened to be in the society with him,” former U.S. Rep. Thomas Ashley, D-Ohio, told the Associated Press in 1988. “His friendship across the social range is known to everyone.”
Members of Bush’s Bones class reunited in Washington while Bush was vice president, dining at the vice president’s mansion and touring the Oval Office.
It was after Yale that Bush left Connecticut for Texas, and the oil industry. But he never cut his ties to Greenwich. Family, including his mother and older brother, still lived here, and he returned on occasion, even after attaining the highest of offices.
One visit was as vice president in September 1986, when he flew in for a rally at Greenwich High School. Students from Greenwich High, Brunswick, Greenwich Academy, Convent of the Sacred Heart and the Daycroft School met him as he arrived at Westchester County Airport and rode in his limousine back to the school.
When Bush ran for president in 1988, five Greenwich residents traveled to New Orleans to serve as delegates and alternates at the Republican National Convention.
“There’s a special, warm bond of friendship he will have with the Connecticut delegation and many personal bonds,” said William Nickerson, then state representative from the 140th District.
More than 180 members of the Bush extended family traveled to Washington for the 41st president’s inauguration. So did many friends from Greenwich. Some stayed there. Among the Greenwich residents who served in Bush’s administration were Joseph Verner Reed, White House chief of protocol; David George Ball, assistant secretary of labor; and former Greenwich Police Chief William Anderson, U.S. marshal.
Bush did not get back often to town as president, but often enough that residents of Pheasant Lane, where Dorothy Bush lived later in life, came to know the sound of the 25-vehicle presidential motorcade rumbling down their narrow road. Shortly before he left office, Bush returned to Pheasant Road, and Christ Church, for his mother’s funeral in 1992.
Eight years ago, the ex-president, then 86, returned to Christ Church once again, making a low-key entrance through the side door of the sanctuary with an entourage of Secret Service agents in tow, and sitting in the third row of pews during a memorial service to the older brother he knew as Pressy.
Prescott Bush Jr. died June 23, 2010. Unlike his father and younger brother, Prescott Jr. lived most of his political life behind the scenes, helping others get elected. His boldest foray into the forefront came in a 1982 challenge to Lowell P. Weicker Jr.’s Senate seat, which he withdrew prior to that year’s primary in a show of party unity.
“They are just a premier American family,” Reed, a lifelong friend of the former president’s who died in 2016, told Greenwich Time after Prescott Jr.’s death.
That Bush, drawing on the early lessons from the playing fields and courts of Greenwich, did not wear the airs of a political scion turned out to be one of his great public strengths, though everyone didn’t always see it as such.
“We told him the fact that your mother told you not to brag is a big liability and you’re never going to be elected,” Russell Reynolds Jr., a longtime Greenwich resident and an inaugural ball chairman for Bush in 1989, told Greenwich Time in 2014. “We told him you have to be more forceful and talk about yourself.”
It wasn’t to be. The Yankee stoicism that forbade bragging also disallowed any sign of self pity, which Bush would not show, not when he lost his re-election campaign to Bill Clinton in 1992, not when Parkinson’s disease took the use of his legs late in life.
“He is a living example of grace and courage, regardless of the physical challenges that he deals with daily,” Debbie Walker Stapleton, a first cousin of Bush and longtime Greenwich resident, said on his 90th birthday, which he marked by jumping out of an airplane, despite being confined to a wheelchair.
That reputation, earned over decades of public service, suffered last year when several women accused him of groping their buttocks while posing for photographs.
Bush’s staff at the time issued apologies and said the former president meant the actions as a joke, a motivation that sexual assault experts said matters little to those on the receiving end. Those who knew Bush best, and much of the country, could not reconcile the accusations with the man they knew.
“Unbelievable,” Greenwich resident E. Pendleton James, who served as Ronald Reagan’s assistant for presidential personnel, said after the first accusation became public, adding that Bush treated women “with great respect and humor.”