A Man of the People
The railway line through College Station that parallels Wellborn Road and runs west of Texas A&M’s main campus has 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 area prospered and, thanks to the donation of a parcel of land by William Joel Bryan, the City of Bryan was incorporated 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 of the day called the destination “the college station.”
The name stuck and College Station became an incorporated township 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 the west side of the Texas A&M 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. After the obligatory meet-and-greet in the Oval Office, George and Barbara usually extended invitations for the crew to join them for a private event, often a barbecue dinner...”Texas” style.
Although he wasn’t born in Texas, George Bush was a Texan through and through.
Nancy never had a chance to meet the ex-president, but she extended him a written invitation to attend each of the four launches of her Shuttle flights.
Finally, on her own trip to the White House as an astronaut, Nancy met the son, George W. Bush, in his role as commander-and-chief.
I had occasion to engage with the senior President Bush twice in the years after he left office.
Bush sitings were a fairly frequent occurrence for those of us living in Houston at the time. 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 golf tournament. When I learned “local sponsorships” were unavailable, I came up with the idea of putting together a fundraiser during the tournament week to benefit a charitable entity.
That organization turned out to be the PGA TOUR Wives’ Association.
Former Texas A&M golfer Jeff Maggert was a mainstay on the PGA TOUR back 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 alongside the world’s top professional golfers in town for the end-of-year showdown.
Fun idea, but we had less than a month to pull things off.
In my first meeting with Kelli, she suggested approaching President Bush about serving 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 pretty well.”
Jeff and Kelli extended the invitation and the president accepted. With his name associated with the event, tables and tickets were easy to sell.
But, as an “honorary” chair, I was skeptical that the president would actually make an appearance. Nor, did I expect him to.
Even in “retirement” President Bush was a busy man.
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 one of our table sponsors. In an open-collared shirt and sport jacket, he had an easy manner to go along with his short-cropped hair.
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.
Immediately, I had visions of metal detectors and body searches. The look on my face must have betrayed my concern.
“Our presence will be very low-key tonight,” I was told. “If there’s anything we can do to help you, please let us know.”
That evening, I discovered what it means to “work a crowd.”
Around the perimeter of the ballroom, each of the two dozen celebrity chefs had a station at which they served their specialty appetizer. A pro golfer assisted, and most of the 30-man field––save for Tiger Woods––were in attendance.
The president, casually followed by a trio of unassuming Secret Service agents, 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.
The next day I reflected on what had occurred. 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.
Such was the example which the president set with his character, generosity and easy charm that his Secret Service detachment sponsored a fundraising golf tournament of their own in the Houston area for several years.
Their event and I crossed paths at Kingwood Country Club, where I was involved in a marketing project. Shortly after The Taste of the Tour, I had become a consultant.
The day of the Secret-Service tournament, the president and former First Lady Barbara Bush arrived making apologies that they would be unable to stay for the whole event due to other commitments that afternoon. Still, he showed up early and before meeting the golfers, he asked to be introduced to members of the club’s staff. Given the spontaneity of his request, there was no time to line everyone up, “royalty-style.” Instead, he wandered around the clubhouse, introducing himself–as if he needed an introduction–to each and every staff person he could find.
Outside, the president posed for pictures with each golfing foursome. Meeting the president, in my experience, was never a rushed occasion. He took time to shake hands and make small talk. Off to the side, Barbara maintained a low profile and chatted with a small group of women who worked at the club.
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 etiquette. 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 President Bush’s life, I was a big fan.
Thus, Nancy and I needed to be there for the passage of the president’s funeral train through College Station.
Living on the city’s south side, we chose a spot near the Wellborn post office. Under the protection of an umbrella, we made our way toward the Union Pacific tracks, where hundreds of others were already standing.
The mood was somber, matching the day’s intermittent precipitation. Like most, we positioned ourselves across the street from the tracks and waited.
But as the wait continued, people began moving closer to where the train would pass. We, too, succumbed to the need to get as close as possible to pay our respects.
Shortly after 3:30 p.m., a bright light pierced through the distant haze. Soon we could hear the low roar of the train as it approached. 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 to the camera app on my cellphone and hit the “play” button facing northward, away from the train.
Panning along the tracks, Nancy came into camera’s view first with her left arm already raised in a salute. Both before and during her time as an astronaut, Nancy also served in the U.S. Army, retiring at the rank of colonel.
With my wife at attention, Locomotive UP4141, named in honor of President Bush and dedicated at ceremonies at the Bush Library in 2005, glided into the 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 brought 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.
Also, during both his successful and unsuccessful runs for the presidency, Bush had intermittently conducted what used to be called “whistle-stop” campaigning, 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 his use during the Civil War. It was completed in February of 1865, just two months before his assassination and was used just once, to carry Lincoln to his burial in Springfield, Illinois.
It was only in review of my video that I caught a glimpse of the special baggage car which had been outfitted to carry President Bush’s remains.
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 final gesture, both the man’s and his many admirers.