Anyone who doubts that Barbara Pierce Bush was a force in her own right never saw her speak live. On one occasion we caught her at an event at Texas A&M University where the crowd roared to life the moment the emcee said, "And here she is, the Silver Fox herself."
Bush, who died at age 92, occupied that rarest of positions in American life: The wife of one president and the mother of another. Only Abigail Adams — married to the second president and mother of the sixth — shared that distinction. But to note this unique history is also to risk casting Bush in the shadow of two presidents, and that doesn't do justice to the woman whose husband affectionately called her "Bar."
Born and raised in New York, she possessed an inner strength that undergirded an extraordinary life. Married in 1945 at age 19 to George H.W. Bush, then a naval aviator, she would go on to move to West Texas and become a force within one of the most successful political families in American history.
Although sometimes known for her sharp wit, Bush's legacy will be found in the compassion she demonstrated for other people. As first lady, at a time of irrational fear about the spread of HIV/AIDS, she famously pushed against stigmatizing those with the disease. She visited a home in Washington, D.C., for HIV positive children, where she cradled an infant and kissed a toddler. She said it was safe and the right thing for everyone to do. "There is a need for compassion," she said.
Instantly recognizable for her gray hair and pearls, few today know that her hair first turned when her daughter Pauline Robinson Bush, known as Robin, tragically died at age 3 after battling leukemia.
Among the many initiatives she championed, Bush may be best known for her work on literacy. She launched the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy while in the White House and continued the work the rest of her life. The foundation, working with local partners, has awarded more than $40 million as of 2014 and helped more than 1,500 literacy programs.
This kind of work doesn't generate the headlines or controversy often associated with the policy agenda of presidents, but it is the kind of effort that can improve millions of lives. "I still feel that being more literate will help us solve so many of the other problems facing our society," she wrote in her memoir in 1994.
Her son George W. Bush is fond of saying that he has his father's eyes and his mother's mouth. That may be true, but we shouldn't let that mask this truth: The depth of Barbara Bush's heart endures in all of the people she has touched.
REPRINTED FROM THE NEW BERN SUN JOURNAL