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"I adore her": In Houston, mourners celebrate Barbara Bush's life

A public event commemorating Bush drew thousands, many of whom had a story to tell about the former first lady.

Mourners pay their respects to former first lady Barbara Bush at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston on April 20, 2018.

HOUSTON — Under a spread of flowers, in a closed silver casket at the front of a brick-facade church in Texas’ most populous city, lay the former first lady, the wife and mother to presidents and governors and a force in her own right.

And on their way to see her were thousands of mourners — celebrators, they might correct you — young and old, liberal and conservative, many of the men in Houston Astros hats and many of the women in Barbara Bush’s characteristic bright blue and pearls.

Bush, a sharp-tongued literacy advocate, frank political critic and national figure bold enough to cradle an infant AIDS patient in 1989 as the disease remained a national taboo, died Tuesday at 92. On Friday, many of her admirers gathered at a Houston church to say goodbye — because, as 8-year-old Eva Factor put it, “it’s not every day that a first lady dies who lives in Houston.”

Bush’s funeral will be held Saturday at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. But a public event there the day before drew thousands, with well-wishers queuing up patiently in the eaves of a nearby megachurch, then boarding a fleet of red, white and blue city buses and traveling otherwise blocked-off streets to bid the late first lady a final goodbye.

As they waited in the early afternoon chill and then waded through the security line, well-wishers remembered Bush for her frankness, her class and an earnestness and genuine spirit they said transcended partisanship.

For Kelly Ogansoy, Bush’s spirit was her strength when her eldest daughter, Robin, died of leukemia as a child. Ogansoy, who lost her 6-year-old son in a car accident about a decade ago, said she admires Barbara Bush’s resilience in the face of the tragedy that famously turned her hair prematurely white.

Ogansoy said she attends St. Martin’s along with the Bushes, and she saw them not too long ago — “We were chit-chatting about the military,” she recalled.

Years before she lost her daughter, years before she became a first lady, Bush dropped out of Smith College to begin a 73-year marriage to George H.W. Bush, who she followed to military bases in Michigan, Maine and Virginia; to school in New Haven, Connecticut; to the White House; and to cities across Texas, including a home in Midland and half a house in Odessa that was also occupied by a brothel. 

But perhaps their closest-held Texas home was her last: Houston, where the couple spent years of their retirement dining at the sprawling city’s famous restaurants, attending plays at its Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and cheering on its baseball team. And Bush left her mark on the town, from the run-ins neighbors remember at Tanglewood Park, where she liked to walk her dogs, to her historic endorsement of former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who would become the country’s first openly gay leader of a major city. At the city's Barbara P. Bush Elementary School, students sing on Friday mornings, “To our school we’ll always be true, Barbara Bush we’re proud of you, proud of you.”

The couple is knit into the fabric of this city, and everyone gathered here Friday seemed to have a story of them to tell — the woman who said “I’m not even of her political party, but I adore her,” and the man who remembers waiting behind George H.W. Bush in line for a haircut at the Houstonian Hotel.

For Vicky Berger, it was a chance encounter on the grounds of the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M University, a few years ago in the springtime, back when Barbara Bush could take her dogs outside to stroll without her walker.

“I said, ‘Could I ever speak to you?’’” Berger, 74, recalled, smiling. “And then she came up and put her arm around me. I said ‘I’m so amazed to be in your presence.’ And she said, ‘We’re happy you are here.’”

The Bergers — whose 55-year marriage is creeping up on the Bushes’ impressive 73-year tally — say they’ve been to the presidential library dozens of times. (Vicky Berger’s favorite spot in that sprawling historical maze? “Her part,” of course). There was no question of whether they would come say goodbye. 

“I said, ‘We have to be here,’” Berger said. “‘And we have to wear blue.’”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University and the George H. W. Presidential Library and Museum have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here. 

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