Thursday evening, just as hundreds huddled before City Hall for the mayor's impromptu celebration of former First Lady Barbara Bush, a separate crowd of well-heeled Houstonians streamed into the nearby Hobby Center for a Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation benefit.
The first lady’s unexpected death Tuesday cast a somber tone over the long-planned dinner-author affair. Tickets and programs still listed her as host, and organizers screened a promotional video—recorded just weeks ago—showing Bush in a multi-colored mascot costume cheering on literacy efforts. Projected huge onstage within Sarofim Hall, the lively video made it hard to believe she was actually gone.
But that fact recast the 24th annual “Celebration of Reading” benefit as a powerful memorial for a beloved matriarch and perhaps the country’s strongest advocate for universal literacy. Friends and members of the Bush clan—here assembled to introduce the evening’s cast of notable authors including thriller-legend Clive Cussler, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and comedian Jim Gaffigan—mostly ditched their prepared remarks to instead share memories of the former first lady.
Longtime friend James A. Baker III set the tone by reassuring the audience that George H.W. Bush was in good spirits; his instructions were to “keep it upbeat.” The former secretary of state and White House chief of staff went on to praise the late Bush’s character, wit, and undying devotion to her chosen cause, even in the final weeks of her life. “As we say here in Texas, Barbara Pierce Bush was strong chili,” quipped Baker, praising the indomitable, pearl-clad woman known as “The Enforcer” to her loved ones.
Later, Maria Bush, Neil’s wife, tearfully recounted her mother-in-law’s final moments. As family members knelt around the bed and prayed and George H.W. clasped his wife’s hand, suddenly, the electricity went out throughout their Post Oak neighborhood. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, did she just shut off her own oxygen?’” said Maria. “Was she trying to tell us enough, move on, get over it, as she always used to tell us?” Soon enough, Bush took her last breaths, and the lights flashed to life. Maria interpreted it as a sign: “Coincidence? Maybe. But, for me, that was so Barbara Bush.”
Few would be surprised that Bush remained a reader until her very last moments. Neil, who has long read to his parents when he’s in Houston, stuck by his mother’s side this week to read from her self-titled 1994 memoir. The family’s personal pastor, Rev. Russell J. Levenson, told the audience how during his final visits he recited Psalms 1 through 48, joking that he stopped there because “at 48, they all start to sound a lot alike.” Then he cracked open Little Women and read for two chapters before switching to Millie’s Book, the first lady’s children’s volume that follows her beloved springer spaniel through a day in the life at the White House.
As the program moved forward, the invited authors were less prepared for the change in mood. Futurist Christina “CK” Kerley mostly stuck to her script, choosing not to address the sad news before launching into a TED-talk style monologue on how technology will save humanity from itself. Gaffigan took the honest route, admitting he never met Barbara Bush and delivering a comedy set focused on his love for cheese. In this case, the levity felt necessary, and the crowd roared.
But it was Gov. Kasich who most skillfully negotiated a tricky situation. Following several personal anecdotes, he emphasized that flags flying at half-staff across the country—from the suburbs of Ohio to neighborhoods in Houston—indicated some much-needed national unity, a message that both honored Bush’s memory and served Kasich’s own rumored presidential aspirations. “To some degree today,” he said to a crowd of nodding heads, “this country is more healed today than it's been because of the light and the death and the courage of Barbara Bush.”
The Houston Gospel Choir eventually closed out the program with a soul-shattering "Amazing Grace," but emotion had already overcome many in the audience; Levenson, the pastor, had just finished his portion with this prayer:
"We know that you are not a God of endings, but of beginnings, so we celebrate her new life with you, with her parents, with her friends, with her daughter Robin. God, you call your gifts to us grace. Thank you for the gift of Barbara Bush. What an amazing gift she was and will be, forever."