First lady Barbara Bush kept a full dance card. She had received more than 2,600 invitations to appear at events during her first 18 months as the first lady. So it was amazing, really, the gift she gave to 92 graduates of the Class of 1989 at a tiny African-American women’s college in Greensboro, NC.
I was among the 2,500 who sat on folded chairs in the quadrangle of Bennett College on that crisp afternoon marveling at the fact that the sitting first lady had chosen Bennett as the only college at which she would speak that year.
News reports say that Mrs. Bush is at home in Houston and will not seek treatment for terminal medical conditions, including congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Those conditions were among those listed on my mother’s death certificate.
That day in historic Greensboro, where nearly 29 years before students staged a sit-in of Woolworth lunch counters, Bush gave the commencement address.
It was magnificent, full of wit and wisdom. It took lessons from the bestselling book by Robert Fulghum, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”
“Play fair, share everything, wash your hands before you eat, put things back where you found them, don’t hit people,” she said in her speech.
My favorite part: “Warm cookies and milk really are good for you.”
She also stressed the importance of literacy, which was her primary project as the first lady. Children from a successful foster care placement agency in town gave her gifts. Mrs. Bush kneeled to meet them eye-to-eye.
As unlikely as it seemed for many to believe Mrs. Bush was there, it was her family’s relationship with President Gloria Randle Scott, a fellow Texan, that helped seal the deal. Scott was named to the education advisory board of President-elect George H. W. Bush in 1987. She later met Mrs. Bush at a United Negro College Fund event in New York. They became friends.
Scott shared Bennett’s history with Mrs. Bush. It was founded in the late 1800s by the United Methodist Church. It became an all-girls school in 1926. Eleanor Roosevelt visited in 1945 to speak at the school’s 19th annual “Homemaking Institute.”
“She was what I would call a down-to-earth person, but a very, very smart woman,” Scott, 80, told me the other day from her home in Corpus Christi, Texas. “She was very intellectually smart and thinks things through.”
Bennett College gave Bush an honorary degree, making her part of a small sorority of 6,000 “Bennett Belles,” as the school’s graduates (including Cincinnati Public School Superintendent Laura Mitchell) are known. Scott said she was going to ask the school to send Mrs. Bush a bouquet of yellow roses, the official flower of Texas, the same kind Bennett gave her in 1989 when she spoke there.
I always liked Barbara Bush better than President Bush from the very beginning. It was all based on the superficial stuff. She was matronly. Her face was wrinkled. Her hair seemed prematurely white. She looked tough, but her eyes always twinkled. America’s “Nana.” Didn’t matter about your race or political persuasion.
After I saw her speak, my preconceived notion held true for the most part.
A Republican first lady, a friend of my friend, kneeling before needy kids and kindly accepting their humble thank-you gifts. A down-to-earth leader who helped create a once-in-a-lifetime moment for the 92 newly minted Bennett Belles. A mom and a grandmother who shared part of her Mother’s Day at a predominately black, all-girls school with a message of hope and empowerment.
She could have literally been any place else in the world.
Enquirer Columnist Byron McCauley is also a member of the editorial board. Call him at (513) 768-8565. Connect with him on Twitter: @byronmccauley. He writes about people and places behind the news and other things that strike his fancy.