A Man of the People
The main railway line through College Station parallels Wellborn Road and today divides Texas A&M’s main and west campuses.
Those tracks have a storied history.
Originally built by the Houston and Texas Central Railway, the line brought newcomers to the Brazos Valley region in the aftermath of the Civil War. Many of those settlers were Confederate soldiers looking for a new start.
The local area prospered as a result of the contributions of many of those newcomers. And thanks to the donation of a parcel of land by William Joel Bryan, the City of Bryan was incorporated to provide a home for these settlers in 1871. Just five years later, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, the state’s first public institution of higher education, opened its doors five miles south of Bryan.
A terminal was built along the tracks to serve the school, and the local postmaster at the time called the destination “the college station.”
The name stuck and College Station became an incorporated township of its own in 1938.
The city is now the final resting place of former President George Bush, his wife Barbara, and their daughter Robin. The trio are interred on the grounds of the George Bush Presidential Library and Conference Center on A&M’s West Campus.
The funeral train which carried President Bush to his final resting place in College Station brought thousands of local residents trackside.
My wife Nancy and I were among the multitudes.
Nancy, now an engineering professor at Texas A&M, was selected to NASA’s astronaut corps during President Bush’s administration. But by the time she made her first of four Space Shuttle flights, the first President Bush had left office.
The stories of the Bush family’s hospitality to Shuttle astronauts were nearly legend at the Johnson Space Center where Nancy worked for 30 years. In the aftermath of the Oval Office meet-and-greets which came as a much-coveted perk for Shuttle crews, George and Barbara frequently extended invitations to their space-faring guests to join them for a private event, often a barbecue dinner... “Texas” style.
Although he wasn’t born in Texas, George Bush lived much of his life as a Texan through and through.
Sadly, Nancy never had a chance to meet the ex-president in person. Her respect for the man was such that she extended him a written invitation to attend each of the four Shuttle launches.
On one of her own trips to the White House as an astronaut, she met his son, George W. Bush, who like his father held the role as our nation’s commander-and-chief.
I had occasion to meet the senior President Bush twice in the years after he left office.
Bush sightings were a fairly frequent occurrence for those of us living in Houston during Bush’s “retirement years.” He was a great sports fan and often attended Astros’, Rockets’, and Texans’ games.
In the lead-up to the 1997 PGA TOUR Championship in Houston, I was charged by my employer with putting together a marketing event in conjunction with the tournament. When I learned local sponsorships were unavailable, I devised a plan to put together a fundraiser during the tournament week.
Ultimately, the event benefitted the PGA TOUR Wives’ Association and monies raised went to local children’s charities.
Former Texas A&M golfer Jeff Maggert was a mainstay on the PGA TOUR in the ‘90s. Living in The Woodlands at the time, he and his wife, Kelli, agreed to help me. Together, we came up with A Taste of the Tour, an event which would bring Houston’s top chefs together with the world’s best professional golfers.
Fun idea, but we had less than a month to pull it off.
In a preliminary meeting with Kelli, she suggested approaching President Bush to serve as honorary chairman for the event. In his political retirement, he was known to support many worthy causes in the Houston area, but I wasn’t certain how to make the ask.
“That’s okay,” Kelli told me. “Jeff knows the president personally.”
Jeff and Kelli extended the invitation and the president accepted. With his name associated with the event, tables and tickets were an easy sell.
I was skeptical that the president–even as honorary chair–would actually make an appearance at the event. After all, as a former full-time resident of the White House, I figured he was still a pretty busy guy.
About an hour before the event was set to begin at Houston’s Omni Woodway Hotel, I was approached by a man I mistook for a table sponsor. Clad in an open-collared shirt and sport jacket, he had an easy manner which reminded me of some of my friends in the Houston oil business.
Instead, he introduced himself as a member of President Bush’s Secret Service detachment and informed me that the president would be in attendance that evening.
My head was immediately filled with visions of metal detectors, body searches, and utter chaos. The look on my face must have betrayed my newfound concerns.
“Our presence will be very low-key tonight,” I was assured. “If there’s anything we can do to help you, don’t hesitate to ask.”
That evening I discovered what it means to “work a room.”
Around the perimeter of the hotel ballroom, each of the two dozen participating celebrity chefs had a station at which they prepared and served their specialty appetizer. Almost the entirety of the 30-man field—save for Tiger Woods—attended. Most were clad in aprons to lend a chef a hand.
After his arrival, the president, unassumingly followed by a trio of Secret Service agents–no metal detectors or body searches had been required–drifted from station to station making jokes, shaking hands, and posing for pictures. Without question he was the catalyst of a feel-good evening that raised more than $120,000 for the PGA TOUR Wives’ children’s charities, a record for the organization at the time.
The next day I reflected on what had occurred the preceding night. I came to the conclusion that I had witnessed a true “man of the people.” I was grateful to Jeff and Kelli Maggert that they had been able to involve him and humbled that the president had chosen to support our cause.
A year later, I ran into President Bush again at another Houston-area charity event.
Given the example which the president set with his character, generosity, and easy charm, his own Secret Service detachment sponsored a fundraising golf tournament in Houston for a number of years.
Their event and I crossed paths at Kingwood Country Club in the fall of 1998. Shortly after The Taste of the Tour, I left the corporate world and went out on my own. In my capacity as a marketing consultant, I began doing work for Kingwood Country Club, and so I was on hand when President Bush visited to support his security detachment.
The day of the tournament, the president and former First Lady Barbara Bush arrived offering apologies that would be abbreviated, due to other commitments they had that afternoon. Still, President Bush immediately got to “work.” His first request was to be introduced to members of the club’s staff. Given the unexpected nature of this request, the club began scrambling. “I can make it easy,” he said. “Take me to them.” Thus, he ventured around the clubhouse introducing himself—as if he needed an introduction.
Outside, the president posed for pictures with each golfing group. Meeting the president, in my experience, was never a rushed experience. He took time to shake hands and make small talk. Off to the side, Barbara maintained a low profile and chatted with the small group of women in attendance.
Once the tournament began, the president and First Lady hopped into a golf cart and led a three-cart procession onto the course. Behind them were a pair of Secret Service agents. In the car bringing up the rear, I rode solo toting a video camera to capture as much of the presidential visit as possible.
I can’t say the president recognized me from our previous encounter, but he did ask me if I worked for the club.
“Yes,” I told him. “Good,” he replied with a smile.
The president navigated the course expertly, following the cart-path rules of golfing decorum. He dutifully stopped and pulled to the side as golfers addressed their balls. He pulled up to several tee boxes, got out of his cart, and socialized.
The man was as genuine as they come, and for the rest of his life, I was a big fan.
Shortly after 3:30 p.m. on December 6, 2018, the day that President Bush’s funeral train brought him to his final resting place in College Station, a bright light pierced through the distant haze. Soon the assembled throng could hear the rumble of the railroad engines as they neared. A murmur of excitement sprang forth from the crowd.
As I had done at the Kingwood Country Club golf course twenty years before, I decided to shoot video of the presidential procession. I tapped the camera app on my cellphone and swiped to the “video” option included there.
When the time was right, I hit the “play” button facing northward, away from the train.
Panning slowly back along the tracks, my wife first came into the camera’s view. Her right arm was already raised at that distinct angle which represents a military salute. Both before and during her time as an astronaut, Nancy also served in the United States Army. She retired at the rank of colonel.
She had been insistent that we pay our final respects to President Bush in person.
With my wife at attention, Locomotive UP4141, named in honor of the president and dedicated at ceremonies at the Bush Library in 2005, glided into my shot.
According to members of the president’s staff, he had personally requested—as far back as 2009—that at the time of his death his body be transported to its final resting place in College Station by train.
In his remarks at the Bush Library during the Engine 4141 dedication, the president had fondly remembered traveling by train in his childhood and that a train had transported him to active military service during World War II.
During both his successful and unsuccessful runs for the presidency, Bush also had intermittently conducted what used to be called “whistle-stop” campaigning by train, not surprising for a man of the people.
The Bush funeral train was the first for a former president since Dwight Eisenhower’s remains were carried from Washington to his final resting place in Abilene, Kansas, in 1969.
Six other presidents, beginning with Abraham Lincoln, were also transported to burial by train. The U.S. military had constructed a special presidential rail car for Lincoln’s use during the Civil War. It was completed in February of 1865, just two months before his assassination, and used just once, to carry Lincoln to burial in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois.
It was only in review of my video after the Bush railway procession that I caught a glimpse of the special baggage car which had been outfitted to carry the president to College Station.
Full-length windows on either side of the car gave onlookers a chance to see his casket draped with an American flag.
How fitting this gesture, bringing the man close to his people one last time.