Thoughts of an Old Man

I knew Barbara Bush.  I met her at least three times when I served as executive director of adult and community education in Tennessee and led the state’s “Literacy 2000” initiative which focused on eliminating adult functional illiteracy, a term meaning reading, writing, and math skills too low to function within a modern technological work environment.

I was appointed in April 1987, after having been a severe critic of Tennessee’s entire adult education system since the 1970s while a university professor of adult and continuing higher education.  In 1987, therefore, I came to the state office, impatient with the ingrained bureaucracy and full of tested ideas about what had to be done.  By July of 1987, forty six new full-time county adult literacy programs were established.  A few months later, ninety-four of Tennessee’s 95 counties had full-time programs.  We were making waves that became nationally known and caught the attention of Barbara Bush, wife of then Vice-President George H. W. Bush.

In the fall of 1987, I was invited to the Vice President’s residence in Washington, D.C. by Mrs. Bush to participate in a wide-ranging small-group discussion of adult illiteracy issues, including the impact of those issues on the family.  We met in the first-floor library of that magnificent home, and Barbara was both moderator and host.  She was at ease with herself, absolutely welcoming and friendly, what I call a “real” person, authentic, genuine, and eager to learn and exchange ideas about literacy initiatives that involve whole families, thus improving the lives of both the parents and the children.  I clearly remember her sincere and deep understanding of how poverty and undereducation feed on each other and become even more ravenous as workplace functional literacy standards increase.

We were served a simple lunch at that meeting, and Barbara took the time to show us a bit more of the first floor of the residence, including the open porches.  She later sat on a couch and with a quick smile, as if getting ready to tell an amusing story, told us that she loved that home.  She said, in her opinion, “this is the best home in town,” as if saying the White House had not much appeal to her!  I was struck by her quiet remark.  I don’t remember whether her husband, George H. W. Bush, had yet declared his intention to run for president to succeed Ronald Reagan.  I knew that Barbara would support his decision, but I also believed that Barbara would be just as happy if he did not run for the presidency.

Barbara was probably the least power-seeking person in public life I knew.  Before we left that day, she gave each of us two engraved wine glasses.  I have them in our dining room armoire.

George was nominated for president at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in August 1988.  He was elected the 41st president of the United States in November of that year and inaugurated in January 1989.

My second meeting with Barbara Bush was in January 1988.  Someone on her staff called me and said Mrs. Bush would like to visit Tennessee and observe adult literacy programs in and perhaps near the Nashville area.  Barbara wanted to spend a day with us and talk with both teachers and learners.  This was an exciting moment!  Barbara Bush, a woman nationally admired and respected, a “fellow traveler” in the cause of adult literacy, and probably the future “First Lady,” wanted to visit us!  We were eager to see her.  Characteristically, she wanted a quiet visit, no fanfare, no dignitaries at the airport, no political talks, even though her husband was now an active candidate for the office of President of the United States!  Here was the wife of the Vice President of the United States and she wanted no publicity.  Her purpose was to visit and learn about adult literacy programs, and that’s what we prepared for her.

Barbara arrived at the Nashville International airport, accompanied by two or three U.S. Secret Service men.  (I’m not sure how many because they were so unobtrusive.)  They arranged for a car and drove to our building which was located on a closed school campus a few miles from the state legislative plaza.  I and my entire state staff were there to greet her, many nervous and expectant even though I had assured them that she was just going to be “one of us.”

Barbara was absolutely friendly and open, but all business!  She wanted to see what we did at the state office, how we allocated funds, how we monitored progress of programs throughout the state, how we initiated change.  Then she wanted to get out of the office and visit programs in the area.  She also requested that we not arrange any lunch activity.  Lunch was not necessary, but visits were!

With my senior staff, I had alerted several programs within a 30 mile radius that we were likely to make a formal visit, accompanied by Mrs. Barbara Bush from Washington D.C., an adult literacy advocate!!  I took a couple of staff members with me in a state car, and the Secret Service men, with Barbara, followed me in their car to each site.

She was almost instantly loved wherever we went.  She was also self-directed: no formality, no group presentations, just eagerness to learn and get specific answers to probing questions in one-on-one conversations.  I was happy, just observing her smiling, laughing, and enjoying the moment.  We got back to the state office very late in the afternoon.  As I write this, I can look over to my bookshelf and see a picture of her with me and the state staff.  She is dressed in a plain, orchid-patterned dress.  She has a three-strand necklace of pearls around her neck.  Her white hair is combed back, and her smile lights the room.  It was a good day.

The third time, I met her was when she was First Lady.  It was either 1990 or 1991.  I had invited her to be the keynote speaker at the national convention of the American Association of Adult and Continuing Education.  She greeted me there as an old friend.  (Of course, she probably did that with most people.)  She was wonderful that day, the most genuine keynote I had probably ever heard.  You can guess what her topic was that day:  adult literacy with emphasis on children and the affects of family literacy on their lives.  It is likely that she was the expert in the room that day on that topic.  She had studied it thoroughly and had given much of her public life to making life better for all children.

That was the last time I saw Barbara Bush.  My memories of her are fresh.  I had thought of making contact with her over the years, but life gets in the way, and the opportunities to connect got fewer and were soon gone.  Barbara died Tuesday, 17 April 2018.  Her funeral was Saturday the 21st.  I would have liked to have been there, but I am comfortable in remembering her as she lived, an inspiration to all who knew her.

Ken McCullough


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