John Shearer: Barbara Bush Visited Chattanooga At Least 6 Times

Friday, April 20, 2018 - by John Shearer

As Americans are saying goodbye and paying their respects to former First Lady Barbara Bush following her death on Tuesday, her face has been shown numerous times on television and in newspapers.


For the last three decades or so, she was a pretty familiar face in Chattanooga as well.


A look at the files in the local history section of the Chattanooga Public Library downtown reveals a woman who came to Chattanooga no less than a half dozen times on formal visits, although apparently none as first lady.


Some of them were for campaign trips, but others were to help a worthy local cause or institution in an altruistic manner.


Her first visit recorded and on file came on Oct. 6, 1985, when she and then-Vice President George Bush were in the area while he was receiving an honorary doctor of civil laws degree from the University of the South.


He and Mrs. Bush took part in the rites in a full All Saints Chapel on the historic and tree-lined Sewanee campus, where he was also speaking as part of the Founders Day gathering there. To keep any possible protests at bay, officials were emphasizing he was being invited as a longtime Episcopalian and not because he was a Republican.


The Sewanee vice chancellor, or top administrator, at the time was Robert Ayres Jr.


After that late morning event, the Bushes came to Chattanooga to visit old, unspecified friends and take part in a $50-per-person fund-raising reception at the downtown Trade Center/Holiday Inn, followed by a private dinner costing $500 per person or $750 per couple. The money was to go to the 1986 gubernatorial and Third District congressional races, both of which ended up being won by Democrats Ned McWherter and Marilyn Lloyd, respectively.


At the time, Mr. Bush was already being considered a front-runner to get the GOP nomination in 1988, when Ronald Reagan would be completing his second term.


And Mr. Bush did end up running for president. And whom did he send to Chattanooga in early 1988 to do some campaigning for him in advance of the Super Tuesday primaries involving Tennessee? That is right, Barbara Bush.


On Jan. 5, 1988, Mrs. Bush – sporting her trademark fake pearls and gray hair, according to one newspaper photograph – campaigned again at the Holiday Inn/Trade Center.


Showing her feisty and blunt side that was more colorful than her hair, she called an obvious negative campaign comment by fellow candidate Sen. Bob Dole “not so veiled.” As a result, she went against her husband’s attempts to follow tradition and not speak ill of fellow Republicans. 


In her campaign remarks on behalf of her husband, she offered some insight into her own goals, saying she would continue to push for expanded reading education if her husband were elected.


It was also announced while she was here that Hamilton County Attorney General Gary Gerbitz would be the Third District chairman of the vice president’s presidential campaign.


Also while here that time, Mrs. Bush attended a dinner at the home of businessman Gordon Street at 1649 Minnekahda Road in Riverview (now the home of U.S. Sen. Bob Corker) and spent the night in town at an unspecified place.


She came back to Chattanooga only eight months later after Mr. Bush received the Republican nomination, and the presidential race was in full swing between Mr. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis.


On Sept. 15, 1988, she arrived at Lovell Field for a two-day stop amid a light rainfall, but that did not dampen her spirits. Her first stop was Madonna Avenue in East Ridge, where she met with residents – with Republican congressional candidate Harold Coker holding an umbrella for her.


Toddler Meredith Hobbs and her family received an autographed leaflet from the future first lady that featured a recipe for her oatmeal lace cookies.


She then met with about 75 supporters at the Hamilton County Republican Party headquarters off North Market Street. She briefly went inside and then walked outside and greeted people in the parking lot.


She also made a brief speech outside amid the noisy passing traffic, and Hamilton County Bush-Quayle campaign chairman Grady Rhoden let out a particularly enthusiastic cheer during it.


To that, Mrs. Bush said to him, “I like you!”


After she spent that Thursday night in town, the next day featured another busy schedule touring the Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, visiting the READ Inc. adult literacy facility (then headquartered at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church) and eventually going to Oak Grove Elementary in Cleveland.


In a touching moment during a gathering of present and former board members, tutors and student at the READ Inc. facility, the center’s oldest student – 89-year-old Bessie Wilson, a black woman born in the previous century – spoke with Mrs. Bush. She said she wanted to learn to read so she could teach a Sunday school class.


“I hope you stand up in your church and tell them all to teach their children to read,” an obviously touched Mrs. Bush said.


The future first lady also shared with the group that she talked with the president about issues that she considered important, like literacy and the homeless and AIDS.


She mentioned about visiting young AIDS patients, a move that endeared her to many at a time when people were afraid to get close to people suffering from the affliction.


Mrs. Bush was also apparently impressed with CSAS on Third Street, saying the program there is an example of how a community can develop an educational approach that works with its demographics.


At Oak Grove, she was treated to a Kids on the Block puppet program.


Mrs. Bush apparently did not come to Chattanooga as first lady, although her husband did in the fall of 1992, when he appeared at Lovell Field/Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport on a campaign stop when he was trailing in the polls to Bill Clinton.


But on April 1, 2000, both she and her husband came back to Chattanooga to help christen the BellSouth Park downtown. Although their son, George W. Bush, was trying to sew up the Republican presidential nomination, they were in town primarily as baseball ambassadors.


The former Yale baseball player and Barbara attended the opening exhibition game between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cincinnati Reds and greeted the players in the dugouts while wearing Chattanooga Lookouts jackets.


Some 6,500 people jammed into the stadium, and officials said 15,000 tickets could have been sold if they would have had the space. Among the future Hall of Famers playing were Cal Ripken Jr. of the Orioles and Ken Griffey Jr. of the Reds.


The Bushes threw out the first pitch, and the San Diego Chicken also performed.


The famous couple also signed autographs before the game and stopped to sign as well for fans before they left during the sixth inning. They left early to attend a $1,000-a-couple fund-raiser for their son at the home of then-developer Bob Corker, which was the same Minnekahda Road home she had visited nearly 12 years before.


They had come to Chattanooga as a favor to Lookouts co-owners and family friends Frank Burke and his father, Daniel Burke. Daniel Burke and the Bushes had homes near each other in Maine, although they had met years before in New York City.


Within a week, the Bushes were scheduled to help open Houston’s new Enron Field as well.


Mrs. Bush would go on to make two more formal visits by herself and maybe become as familiar with the Scenic City as perhaps any former first lady.


On March 8, 2002, she attended a fund-raising dinner at The Chattanoogan downtown for Boyd-Buchanan School after being flown from Houston by Covenant Transport executive David Parker. She jokingly told the 300 who had paid $500 per person that she could not believe her son, then-President George W. Bush, was the same person whom she once had to scold for not cleaning his room or doing his homework.


On a more serious note, she added that her son had felt the prayers of the people following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks of less than six months earlier.


She also jokingly added that now that she was the mother of a president, she could say almost anything she wanted and get away with it.


She also encouraged those in attendance to read to their children and grandchildren.


Among those who was impressed with Mrs. Bush and her visit was event organizer Doll Buckner. Saying she had spent some time with her before the event, she called the former first lady “very kind, gracious and thoughtful.”


Mrs. Bush’s apparent last visit to Chattanooga came on March 29, 2007, when she was the keynote speaker at the sixth Helen DiStefano Fund luncheon at the Trade Center. Helping the group raise money for families whose mothers have cancer, she encouraged the audience in her typical manner to not take life too seriously.


Fund executive director Rachel Houghton said after her talk that she was impressed with Mrs. Bush. “She is an inspiration to all of us to give back to our community,” she told the local newspaper.


After the luncheon, Mrs. Bush visited Scenic Land School off Mountain Creek Road for students who had experienced difficulties succeeding academically in other schools.


While she was there during her 45-minute visit, students read to her and asked her questions, and she told them they could succeed despite challenges.


“It was just like she was in her living room with her family,” said the impressed Scenic Land director of development Virginia Piper.


Through all her visits, this woman with the gray hair always managed to add a smile and bright moment to the lives of Chattanooga area residents.

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