Barbara Bush’s legacy remains with Natchez woman

Published 12:01 am Thursday, April 19, 2018


NATCHEZ — Harriet Smith only met Barbara Bush once, but her family looks back on the day as one of the most memorable of Smith’s long life.

Bush, an adamant advocate for literacy in America, wife of the 41st president of the United States and mother of the 43rd president, died at the age of 92 on Tuesday.

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Bush’s literacy initiatives during her husband’s presidency touched thousands of lives throughout the nation — and at least one of those lives was right here in Natchez.

Barbara Winston, Smith’s daughter, said the two women laughed and talked “like old friends” when they met, and old photos show Bush and Smith holding hands and laughing on stage at a Blue Cross Blue Shield Ageless Heroes ceremony in Chicago on May 18, 1999.

The Bushes invited the Natchez family to the event after Smith won an Ageless Hero Award in the Love of Learning Category.

Smith said she and her two sisters flew to Chicago together, rode in a limousine for the first time and sat in the crowd as their mother received the award.

Smith won after learning to read for the first time at the age 77.

“My mother went from being an orphan to dining with the president and first lady of the United States,” Barbara Winston said. “Mrs. Bush was the most down-to-earth person; she was just laughing and talking.”

After receiving the award, Smith and Bush headed over to the Harold Washington Library Center, where the women read to children.

“Like any mother, Mrs. Bush talked about her children — how much she loved them and how proud she was of them,” Smith said, laughing. “And mother, she did the same thing. She told the First Lady all about us.”

Smith shared Bush’s love of learning — Winston said though her mother never had a formal education, she spent her life learning.

“And she passed that on,” Winston said. “No matter what, her children would get an education. And we did.”

Photos of Bush and Smith are sprinkled throughout a yellowed binder filled with photos, newspaper clippings and notes Winston keeps from her mother’s trip to Chicago.

“My mother, she never met a stranger,” Winston said. “But she was very proud of that moment. She wrote all four of her children postcards, because she never could before.”

Winston said even though she only knew Bush through her mother, she would mourn the First Lady’s passing.

“She led a wonderful life,” Winston said. “She was so kind.”

Mrs. Bush goes to Natchez

Barbara Bush officially walked onto Natchez soil at 10:38 a.m. Oct. 30, 1984.

Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Barbara — along with several dozen secret agents and a throng of campaign workers and press — only spent three and a half hours on the ground in Natchez, but more than 7,000 people crowded around the Natchez airport to see them.

Theirs was the first visit from a president or vice president since almost exactly 75 years prior when William Howard Taft came to campaign on Oct. 29, 1909.

The teeming crowd flooded the Natchez bluff, and former Adams County GOP Chairwoman Pat Dickens was among them.

“I only caught a glimpse of her that day, I really got to know her in meetings and such in other places,” Dickens said. “Mrs. Bush, she had the best sense of humor. She was so fun, and she will be greatly missed by many of us.”

Dickens said she first met the Bush family before she moved to Natchez, when she was living in St. Louis, where she went to church with several members of the extended Bush family.

Dickens said she got to know Barbara Bush better when she attended a campaign meeting in New Orleans during George H.W. Bush’s run for the presidency.

“He was running late, and she was sitting beside me,” Dickens said. “She leaned over to me and said, ‘He is always late. You just can’t count on him to be on time.’ She was just down-to-earth like that.”

Dickens said Natchez and the nation will miss the classy but relatable First Lady.

“Our country was well represented by her and her husband and her son,” Dickens said. “Of all the family members, she had the best sense of humor. I think everyone that met her, no matter what side of the political fence, they admired her.”