Barbara Bush will forever be known as the nation’s lovable First Lady. The wife of our country’s 41st president and the mother of the 43rd. She has been called the matriarch of the Bush family and of the Republican Party.
She was also mother of Jeb Bush who served as Florida’s governor from 1999 to 2007. But her ties to Florida extended far beyond her son’s role as governor.
“Today I join you and millions of Americans mounring the loss of former First Lady Barbara Bush and extending our condolences to the entire Bush family,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement. “Barbara Bush always never failed to remind us that there is always more good to be done. From advancing literacy across the nation to being a wonderful mother to both our former president and Florida’s former governor, Barbara Bush lived up to her nickname of America’s ‘First Grandmother.’”
Liz Eggert Hirst served as Jeb Bush’s communications director. She worked closely with Ms. Bush on literacy issues in Florida.
“Everything from being formidable and strong, but also dignified and witty and straightforward all at the same time,” were the words Eggert Hirst used to describe Bush’s character. “What you see is what you got.”
Barbara Bush was known for her efforts to increase the nation’s literacy rate. It was a passion that started during her husband’s first bid for president in 1978. She thought if she became First Lady she wanted to devote her time to something that would make a difference in people’s lives.
“She was jogging around Houston and she wanted to figure out what her cause was–was it drugs, was it hunger, was it homelessness,” Eggert Hirst recalls a story told to her by Bush about how she became interested in literacy.
“But she told me she kept coming back to the idea of if every man, woman and child could read in America, all of our lives would be better off,” said Eggert Hirst. “That has stuck with me so much over the years. She was right.”
Bush said if more people could read, write, and comprehend, “we could be much closer to solving so many other problems that our country faces.”
In 1989 she founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. Over the past 29 years since it was established, the Foundation has raised more than $110 million in support of family literacy programs in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
As governor, Jeb followed in his mother’s footsteps. He created the Florida Foundation for Family Literacy, which mirrored his mother’s efforts on the national level. He made education a priority of his administration and emphasized reading programs.
Jeb’s Florida Foundation was eventually merged with his mother’s, which is headquartered in Tallahassee just a couple of blocks from the Governor’s Mansion where her son once resided. Eggert Hirst says the fact the foundation is headquartered in Tallahassee reflects the bond Jeb had with his mother.
“It speaks volumes,” she said. “Governor Bush was so close to his mom and he wants to improve lives of Floridians through education. So it was just a natural fit.”
Jeb honored his mother with a statement posted on his Facebook page Tuesday evening.
“I’m exceptionally privileged to be the son of George Bush and the exceptionally gracious, gregarious, fun, funny, loving, tough, smart, graceful woman who was the force of nature known as Barbara Bush,” Jeb wrote.”Thank you for your prayers, and we look forward to celebrating and honoring her life and contributions to our family and great nation in the coming days.”
The foundation is run by several members of the Bush family, including Jeb’s sister Dora, who oversees the organization.
“It has impacted, I would say tens-of-thousands, if not millions, of lives over the years,” said Eggert Hirst who worked for the foundation for several years.
Barbara Bush’s devotion to literacy also impacted her family’s lives as well. She instilled in her grandchildren the importance of reading.
“I love watching Jeb (Jr.) read to his children. It brings a smile to my heart,” Barbara Bush once said.
“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Eggert Hirst. “It really is about all the children. That’s where her heart was truly touched.”