Memories of a man of honor

It is that magic time of the year when we start to feel the tingle of the season in the air. We are anticipating coming together with families as, once again, we bask in the warm glow of the holidays. In the midst of this cozy time of the year that brings out that small child who still lives deep down inside all of us, America has lost a giant of a man. George Herbert Walker Bush, the nation’s 41st president, has passed away. Even though he had a long and wonderful life that saw him serve as a Congressman, ambassador to China and the United Nations, chairman of the Republican Party, CIA director, two-term vice president and then as president, the world, and I, are sad at saying a final goodbye to him.

Regardless of our particular political persuasion, or if the state we live in is blue or red, we pause to look back with fondness and respect at the life of this good and decent man, this gentleman’s gentleman, this patriot who defined the very essence of what it means to be a public servant, and who always loved his country more than his political party.

Like many people from across America, and the world, in my mind’s eye, I’ve watched a silent parade of misty images and half-forgotten memories softly marching through the main street of my memories. They are the remembrances of a man who towered above the political landscape for four decades. A humble man who, even when he reached the pinnacle of power, treated people with respect, never stooped to lash out publicly at his critics and never complained about how so much of his successes and behind-the-scenes accomplishments failed to be recognized and acknowledged in the public spotlight.

Truth be told, in characterizing the late president as having lived a wonderful life, I am reminded of actor Jimmy Stewart’s role of in the timeless Hollywood classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where he played a fictional character who also was named George; George Baily. In my mind, Bush 41 seemed to amplify that same homespun, uniquely American Jimmy Stewart persona. Maybe it’s just me, but I always saw a bit of George Baily in George H.W. Bush. And, I think that’s a good thing.

Although I never got the chance to meet George H.W. Bush, the winds of fate swept me into his post-presidential orbit where, across a broad gulf of years, the two of us became pen-pals and email chat buddies. It’s a long, boring and rather self-absorbed tale that started nearly 20 years ago when, after I had written a rather positive and flattering look-back op-ed piece on President Bush in a Massachusetts newspaper, unbeknownst to me, his good friend and political ally, the late Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, shared with him.

The result was a lovely little warm thank-you note from the former president. I remember nearly fainting on that long-ago winter day when I opened my mailbox to see the letter from him. I was amazed that he’d take the time to reach out to a political nobody who he didn’t even know, and who resided in a deep blue state that was not Bush friendly. I recall thinking, “It’s a form letter that was cranked out by his staff. I’ll never hear from him again, but … how cool is it that I have received a personal letter from a former president!” I even saved the envelope that it came in.

Long story short, I was thunderstruck when, as the months rolled by, he began writing to me every now and then. Despite the fact that he and I had nothing in common with each other, the correspondence grew, and through a series of small handwritten notes, as well as longer more detailed letters and Christmas cards, he would often share some of his thoughts with me on various things that popped into his mind at a given moment in time. Along the way, I discovered that we actually did share some common ground with each other. We both liked baseball, loved country music and were World War II history buffs. Across the years, I shared some country music-focused article copy with him, and he never failed to reply to me on his feelings on my copy in a positive and down-to-earth way. I also quickly learned, from his own words to me, how proud Bush was to have served his country in the Second World War as a decorated N avy fighter pilot, and how deep his love for America always was. What came through loud and clear to me in his notes and letters was an unwavering view of this country as the greatest place on Earth, and his unconditional love of his family was always front and center.

I was further astounded by the fact that, after furnishing him with external communications advice on his son, George W., that he asked me if I might provide, he actually passed my thoughts along to his son directly, and thanked me more than once for the input. Again, a political nobody who he’d never even met, and yet who he took the time to foster a distant correspondent relationship with. To this day, I am still amazed that this came to pass. He was that kind of a guy. When I look at the current political climate of these times, I am always reminded that they don’t make them like George H.W. Bush anymore. As a nation, we were fortune to have him lead our country by the fine example he always set.

This week, as I watched the coverage of America’s 41st president leaving his beloved Texas aboard Air Force One for the final time, it was the second time in as many days that there was a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. The first time was remembering the pictures of his service dog, Sully, sleeping next to his master’s casket all night at the funeral home in Houston.

So, as I look back on a former world leader who took the time to reach out to a guy in New England who was, for all intents and purposes, little more to him than a faceless email address and a street name and number, and then who kept up a sporadic correspondence with him throughout the years, I am so very sad that he’s gone. And yet, I’m so grateful to have corresponded with him from such a very long distant. I shall treasure the notes, letters and cards that he found the time to send to me.

His was indeed a life well-lived. Whether one liked him or disliked him, in the final analysis, President George H. W. Bush always was a man of humility and character who brought honor, integrity and pride to the Oval Office. He was the very essence of that intangible thing called class. He took with him those sterling personal attributes that are, today, so glaringly conspicuous by their absence.

Paul Collins is a freelance writer from Southborough, Massachusetts.