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Now it's Texas' time to bid farewell to George H.W. Bush

Now it's Texas' time to bid farewell to George H.W. Bush
The Bush family watches as the flag-draped casket of former President George H.W. Bush is carried by a military honor guard. (Alex Brandon / Getty Images)

George H.W. Bush was born and raised in New England, but when his body left Washington on Wednesday, it was flown back to his adopted home: Texas.

Bush supporters in Texas have flocked to makeshift memorials at the feet of his statues overlooking Houston’s Buffalo Bayou riverfront park and his presidential library at Texas A&M University. Flags were lowered to half-staff across the state after his death Friday at age 94 at the home he shared with his late wife, Barbara, in Houston’s upscale Tanglewood neighborhood. Gov. Greg Abbott declared Wednesday a statewide day of mourning, with schools that have facilities named after him hosting events celebrating the life of the 41st president.

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“Houstonians, Texans, are very proud of our relationship with the Bushes,” said Steve Livingston, head of Houston Christian High School, home to the George and Barbara Bush Center for Scholars and Leaders, which runs student leadership programs and boasts a large collection of the late president’s mementos.

On Wednesday, Livingston and others who had met Bush discussed his legacy with students at the center, which opened in 2012. Livingston met Bush several years ago at a screening of the documentary “41,” visited the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, and worked with Barbara Bush to establish the school’s center. He said the president earned locals’ respect by breaking with his roots to set out and conquer the world on his own terms.

“There was that independence, that entrepreneurial spirit that resonates with Texans,” Livingston said, “a willingness to break with traditions of what was expected.”

Bush was born in Milton, Mass., the antithesis of Texas. Son of a U.S. senator from Connecticut, he attended Phillips Academy Andover prep school, and insisted on serving in the military during World War II before attending Yale University. He married Barbara Pierce, a fellow Yankee blueblood, but the couple set out for Texas as soon as he graduated, moving their family to the state’s western reaches, where Bush sold oil field equipment.

As his son George W. Bush, the 43rd president, recalled in his eulogy at Washington’s National Cathedral on Wednesday — speaking with a twang forged in West Texas — the town where they settled was so scrappy, the Bushes were forced to share a duplex bathroom with “ladies of the night” – a.k.a. prostitutes. But the oil fields of Odessa and Midland soon boomed and the elder Bush made millions, eventually moving to Houston.

Bush embraced the city and made it his own. He went on to serve as chairman of the Harris County Republican Party in 1963 and as a congressman from 1967 to 1971. Later, as head of the CIA, ambassador to the United Nations, vice president and president, he brought national attention to his adopted hometown.

Long after he left office, Bush continued his role as the city’s senior statesman. Last year, he brought the four fellow living former presidents to Texas A&M to raise more than $31 million for Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts. Houston residents grew accustomed to seeing Bush seated alongside his wife behind home plate at Houston Astros home games. It was Bush, a former college baseball player, who threw out the first pitch in Game 5 of last year’s World Series between the Astros and Dodgers at Minute Maid Park.

Bush often appeared at events in his wheelchair wearing colorful socks designed to draw attention to favorite causes, including his wife’s family literacy foundation. He is to be buried Thursday in a pair paying tribute to his service as a World War II naval aviator, according to Houston-based spokesman Jim McGrath.

Among those gathered to meet Bush’s casket at Houston’s Ellington Field on Wednesday was Allison Spiers, 18. A West Texas native, Spiers described Bush as “welcoming” and humble, full of “Texas spirit and grit.” Born long after Bush left office, Spiers never met the former president but spoke of him with familiarity, having attended classes at the Houston Christian High School center that bears his name.

“His legacy lives on not only in his son, but in the people who go here and take leadership classes,” Spiers said.

With his body returned to Texas, it was to lie in public repose at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, which grew during the decades Bush and his family attended to become the largest Episcopal congregation in the nation with more than 9,000 members. A similar public viewing held at the church for his wife after she died in April at age 92 drew thousands.

As onlookers crowded near a barricade, the hearse carrying Bush arrived with its motorcade at 6:20 p.m. A military band and church officials lined the front of the church to escort the body inside.

Mourners had been lining up since 9 a.m. to attend the viewing. Among the first was Pennie Werth-Bobian, 56, a retired elementary school teacher from the Houston suburbs who first met Bush in the 1990s.

A friend cutting the former president’s hair at the Houstonian Hotel alerted Werth-Bobian, who stopped by and struck up a conversation. Bush asked that she return every month or so when he got his hair trimmed.

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The second time they met, Werth-Bobian asked what she should call him, thinking “Mr. President” sounded too formal.

“‘Call me George,’” she recalled him saying.

She did.

“That’s what he liked about me: that I talked to him like I talked to my dad,” she said.

They often shared family stories. Many of his tales involved George W. Bush, who she inferred was his favorite. Once, she said, Bush talked about Robin, his 3-year-old daughter he lost to leukemia in 1953, and his eyes welled with tears.

Werth-Bobian was newly married when they met, and asked Bush for advice.

“He said he and Barbara were best friends,” she recalled.

Mourners waited to file into the Gothic church to pay their respects with red, white and blue rhinestone caps in hand, elephant pins on their lapels and Barbara Bush-style pearls around their necks.

After the viewing and a service Thursday morning, Bush’s remains will be taken by train and motorcade to the family plot on the grounds of his presidential library in College Station, including a ride up George H.W. Bush Drive. There he will be buried alongside his wife and daughter Robin.

“It’s the end of an era,” Werth-Bobian said. “Houston has lost a great one.”

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