2018-04-27 / Front Page

Residents remember Barbara Bush

‘She was just a wonderful lady’
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Jo O’Connor of Kennebunkport shares her memories of former First Lady Barbara Bush during a remembrance service attended by nearly 300 people Sunday, April 22, at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk. (Duke Harrington photo) Jo O’Connor of Kennebunkport shares her memories of former First Lady Barbara Bush during a remembrance service attended by nearly 300 people Sunday, April 22, at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — It was about seven years ago when Jo O’Connor of Kennebunkport, her young children Madeline and Lucas in tow, happened to be in H.B. Provisions in Lower Village at the same time as former First Lady Barbara Bush.

As natives to the Port, the children had naturally heard many a tale about these near-mythological beings known as the Bushes, but, to that point in their young lives, had not yet seen an example of the species out in the wild. So, O’Connor quietly knelt down and whispered that right there, seated at that nearby table — close enough that you could touch, almost — was the family matriarch herself.

It was then that Madeline, with the unabashed confidence only a child can muster, marched right up to Mrs. Bush and proudly announced, “Hi, I’m Maddy. I’m seven. We drive our company by your house all the time.”


Cheryl Cox of Kennebunkport, with her miniature schnauzer Maddie, attired in honor of former First Lady Barbara Bush, signs a card of condolence to the Bush family, during a memorial service Sunday, April 22, at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk. (Duke Harrington photo) Cheryl Cox of Kennebunkport, with her miniature schnauzer Maddie, attired in honor of former First Lady Barbara Bush, signs a card of condolence to the Bush family, during a memorial service Sunday, April 22, at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk. (Duke Harrington photo) That was, of course, all too cute. But then, after the hellos were made and pleasantries exchanged, Maddy asked a question that froze her mother’s soul. Perhaps recalling something she had once seen in “The Wizard of Oz,” the young girl politely enquired, “Are you the good Bush, or the bad Bush?”

“My liberal, outspoken self was horrified,” O’Connor recalled on Sunday. “So, I mouthed to Mrs. Bush, ‘Sorry.’”


After placing a bouquet of flowers, a woman blows a kiss in the direction of Walker’s Point on Wednesday, April 18. Visi- tors created an impromptu memorial for former First Lady Barbara Bush hours after her death. (Dan King photo) After placing a bouquet of flowers, a woman blows a kiss in the direction of Walker’s Point on Wednesday, April 18. Visi- tors created an impromptu memorial for former First Lady Barbara Bush hours after her death. (Dan King photo) But the First Lady did not miss a beat. Betraying not a sign of personal offense, she replied, “Well, some would say both, my dear.”

“I was so grateful for her humor and grace at that otherwise awkward moment,” O’Connor said.

After that, hugs were exchanged and the requisite selfies taken, and as the O’Connors drove away, Madeline, who’s maternal grandmother was also named Barbara, said, “Mom, I think I have another Nana Barbara.”

“That just about made me break down and cry,” O’Connor said.

That was just one of many stories shared on Gooch’s Beach Sunday, April 22, at a remembrance service called to pay respect and bid farewell to one-half of Kennebunkport’s most famous couple, the woman universally known — thanks to her own self-effacing campaign quip from 1988 — as “everybody’s grandmother.”


Ellie Flavin of Kennebunk shares her memories of former First Lady Barbara Bush during a remembrance service attended by nearly 300 people Sunday, April 22, at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk. (Duke Harrington photo) Ellie Flavin of Kennebunk shares her memories of former First Lady Barbara Bush during a remembrance service attended by nearly 300 people Sunday, April 22, at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk. (Duke Harrington photo) First class

Barbara Bush, 92, died April 17 at her home in Houston, Texas. Born Barbara Pierce in New York City on June 8 1925, she met the future U.S. president, George H. W. Bush, while still a 16-year-old schoolgirl. The couple became engaged in 1943 and married two years later.

“I married the first man I ever kissed. When I tell this to my children they just about throw up,” she would later famously chuckle.


The Walker’s Point flag flies at half staff in honor of former First Lady Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday, April 17. Visitors to Kennebunkport started a memorial in a spot overlooking the residence. (Dan King photo) The Walker’s Point flag flies at half staff in honor of former First Lady Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday, April 17. Visitors to Kennebunkport started a memorial in a spot overlooking the residence. (Dan King photo) A devoted mother, the great causes she pursued during her husband’s tenure in the Oval Office, and afterward, were inspired, in part, by a life spent caring for her six children, including her eldest, former U.S. President George W. Bush. The death of 3-year-old daughter Robin from leukaemia in 1953 is said to have inspired her many efforts on behalf of cancer charities, including creation of the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center in 1995. Her drive to eradicate illiteracy was reportedly sparked when her son Neil was diagnosed with dyslexia.


Signing a card of condolence on Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk on Sunday, April 22, with thoughts about former First Lady Barbara Bush, are, from left, Eleanor Masi of Ogunquit., Diann Trachimowicz of Drake’s Island, Cheryl Richmond of Kennebunk and Debbie Balboni of Wells. (Duke Harrington photo) Signing a card of condolence on Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk on Sunday, April 22, with thoughts about former First Lady Barbara Bush, are, from left, Eleanor Masi of Ogunquit., Diann Trachimowicz of Drake’s Island, Cheryl Richmond of Kennebunk and Debbie Balboni of Wells. (Duke Harrington photo) But there were those who felt that being a wife and mother — sometimes dutifully holding her tongue on issues like gun control and abortion so as not to rattle cages unduly among the media class — made Bush somehow less than enlightened, somehow less than a whole, fully-actualized woman.

In 1990, Bush was invited to give the commencement addresses at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. But 150 members of the senior class at the all-female school signed a petition protesting her selection as speaker. After all, Bush dropped out of Smith College at 19 to marry a scion of old money, or so the assessment went. And such an action was hardly the feminist ideal one ought to emulate, they said.

“To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley,” the petition read.

Even in that less polarized era, television pundits could not help but weigh in, and, when Soviet first lady Raisa Gorbachev was added to the speakers list, interest grew to a fever pitch. All three major networks at the time broke into programming for live coverage of Bush’s speech — the only time such attention has ever been paid to an address by a First Lady. The post-event breakdown by news anchors was akin to the meticulous parsing generally reserved for the annual State of the Union presentation given by the president himself.

But the talking heads were as wowed as the crowd of 5,000 by Bush’s speech. Her message: That no one should chose the path of a woman but that woman herself, and that no one choice is any less valid than any other.

“One of the reasons I made the most important decision of my life, to marry George Bush, is because he made me laugh. It’s true, sometimes we’ve laughed through our tears, but that shared laughter has been one of our strongest bonds,” she told the graduating class.

And she went on to exhort her audience, at the advent of their adult lives, to embrace and cherish those same strong bonds.

“Cherish your human connections, your relationships with family and friends,” she said. “For several years, you’ve had impressed upon you the importance to your career of dedication and hard work, and, of course, that’s true. But as important as your obligations as a doctor, lawyer, or business leader will be, you are a human being first and those human connections — with spouses, with children, with friends — are the most important investments you will ever make.

“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent,” she said.

And Bush acknowledged that times were changing, that the traditional roles of men and women in society were evolving, blending.

“Maybe we should adjust faster, maybe we should adjust slower,” she said. “But whatever the era, whatever the times, one thing will never change: Fathers and mothers, if you have children – they must come first.”

And finally, Bush threw out a bone to the ambitious young women in the Wellesley Class of 1990.

“Who knows,” she said. “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president’s spouse.

“I wish him well!”

“I’ll never forget that,” O’Connor said. “That speech was really important. She really dropped the mic.She said we all have our choices, but we need to stick by and own them. And she certainly did that, with grace and humor and vigor, even when her opinions differed from her husbands.”

Local legend

But Bush was no more tied to gender than she was to politics. Always willing to speak hert truth when appropriate, she famously said soon after Sarah Palin’s failed attempt to land a heartbeat away from the big chair: “I sat next to her once, thought she was beautiful, and I think she’s very happy (back) in Alaska. I hope she’ll stay there.”

Among the locals who knew Barbara Bush, it was that quick, subtle wit that was her own personal charm.

She was not a native Mainer, it’s true. To her dying day she had the great misfortune of being from away. But she and her husband might was well have been locals.

George H.W. Bush, who purchased Walker’s Point from his maternal uncle in 1977 had been coming to Kennebunkport since he was a boy, Barbara Bush since she was 17. And the couple has been embraced ever since in the was of the taciturn Yankee, allowed to approach as close as it pleased them, but otherwise keeping a respectful distance, guarding their privacy, always.

“She was very approachable, I just always let her approach first,” said Cheryl Richmond of Kennenbunk, at Sunday’s remembrance service.

Richmond first met Bush on Gooch’s Beach more than 20 years ago. She and George Bush always sort of blended in, at least to the extent they could without sending their Secret Service detail into a tizzy, and Mrs. Bush could often be found walking her dogs along the beach, either before or after the summertime canine curfew, always with at least one agent trailing in her wake.

“As much as I wanted to see her, I also wanted to respect her privacy, and so never went up to her, but she’d always divert her path and come to me,” Richmond said.

And as always there was that gentle humor. When asked by someone who did not know what her dogs were named, Bush would as often as not reply, “Bad and Worse” — an appellation known to alternate among the two animals, depending on which mutt did what most recently.

“She would walk up and down the beach with her two little dogs, even in her last years using her walker with the giant ‘dune buggy’ wheels,” said Diann Trachimowicz of Drake’s Island, a member of Kennebunk’s dog advisory committee.

“And she always cleaned up after her dogs,” Trachimowicz said. “You might expect she would make her secret service agent or some other person do that, but she always did it herself and carried it along.”

“She never expected anybody else to do that for her. She was just like everybody else,” agreed Alice Ferran, another member of the committee.

“She’d say, ‘Just call me Barbara. And she would chide other people to pick up after their dogs we well,” said Ellen Fagan, smiling at the memory of the Republican First Lady tut-tutting locals and tourists alike for failing the pristine beach environment.

“She was just a wonderful lady, She was always so vibrant,” said Debbie Balboni of Wells, who first encountered Bush on the beach six years ago, and found herself scolded with good humor for wearing sunglasses in the resulting photo.

“She was just so very approachable,” Richmond said. “She was just a beautiful person who did so much. That’s why I wanted to be here because of all she’s done — not just for children, but for all people in general. She was lovely outside and in. She will be missed by everybody.”

Perhaps proving that Barbara Bush transcended politics, Sunday’s remembrance was organized by Diane Denk, a multi-time state legislative candidate under the Democratic Party banner, who first met Bush at Gooch’s Beach 17 years ago.

“At Gooch’s, there are no Republicans, there are no Democrats. There are only dog lovers,” she said, as she spoke in Bush’s honor, enticed others to share their memories of the former First Lady, and led the crowd of nearly 300 in singing, “You Are My Sunshine,” before flowers were thrown into the sea.

“She didn’t have any enemies,” said Denk’s opponent in the coming campaign, Republican State Rep. H. Stedman Seavey.

“She did everything with grace. That was the great gift she had and I hope that is not lost now that she is gone,” Seavey said, addressing the nation’s current political climate.

Many of the women in attendance, and not a few of the dogs, came decked out in blue, wearing Bush’s trademark pearls in emulation.

“We’re doing this lovingly because I know how much she loved dogs,” said Cheryl Cox of Kennebunkport, whose miniature schnauzer Maddie wore Nathan Lane pearls obtained at a Barbara Bush foundation event last September, the first and only time she had Bush had met.

“She was always such a wonderful, inspirational woman,” Cox said.

Cox, like others, signed an oversized card which she plans to deliver to the guards at Walker’s Point, in hopes it will be passed on to the Bush family. And she brought a children’s book. Denk plans to distribute that collection to area libraries and to the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital.

But in the end, Sunday’s event, like all memorials, was really about the living. It was a chance for those who remain behind, those who felt a connection to Barbara Bush in some way, whether or not their dogs ever rubbed noses with her’s, who had no chance to pass by her casket at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, to gather, to reminisce, and to say goodbye.

“Oh, we just loved her,” said Trachimowicz.

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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