Westeryears: A Great Guy Delivers the Green Lecture
As the entire nation paused this week to honor the life and legacy of U.S. 41st President George H. W. Bush with fitting and formal memorial services, many in Mid-Missouri reflected back on the President Bush’s two appearances at Westminster in 1986 and 1988.
The late President’s first appearance on campus was actually a number of years in the making. Correspondence shows former Congresswoman, ambassador, and author Clare Boothe Luce, who had delivered the John Findley Green Foundation lecture in November of 1980, reached out to the then Vice-President Bush in the spring of 1981 along with a letter from Westminster President J. Harvey Saunders to attempt to bring him to Westminster for Parents Weekend in October. Then U.S. Congressman Bill Emerson made another attempt in the fall of 1981.
However, the time was ripe in August, 1985, when Westminster Chaplain Bill Young had a chance encounter with Craig Fuller, the Chief of Staff to the Vice President, in Ponca City, OK and told Fuller of the College’s desire to bring the Vice-President to Westminster. The occasion would be a momentous one–the 40th anniversary of Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech, and the timing was perfect for a politician who had aspirations to move the next step upward in his career, following President Reagan into the White House. What better opportunity to symbolize leadership than to stand where Churchill stood to deliver a message to the world?
Thus when President Saunders issued the invitation this time, the speech was confirmed for Vice President Bush to deliver the 41st John Findley Green Foundation Lecture on March 5, 1986–actually the first of the entire lecture series to be delivered on the same day as Churchill’s address.
Westminster College archives show what a monumental task planning the Vice President’s visit was, but certainly with the masterful Director of Development Jack Marshall in charge, no detail was too small for attention, and nothing was left to chance. For example, a bottle of Perrier water, a 7-Up, and a Sprite were placed, as requested, backstage for the Vice President and Mrs. Bush One note from Jack says: “The advance team will arrive on Thursday, February 27. We probably will know nothing else until they appear. The team will include some Secret Service people and White House press people, and they will be headquartered in Columbia.”
The demand for tickets for such as event was overwhelming with a total of only 1,400 seats available in the auditorium. So many people were disappointed not to receive tickets that the College ended up publicizing how tickets were distributed so the process would be transparent. Student ticket requests were filled first followed by faculty and staff and their spouses, Board of Trustees members and spouses, Churchill Fellows and their spouses, Alumni Council members and spouses, Sentinels of the Columns donors and their spouses, officers of the Churchill Memorial Chapters in Fulton, Kansas City, and St. Louis, Bush staff, media representatives, state and national dignitaries,and some major donors and spouses. Fifty tickets were issued to William Woods students. General seating tickets were cream-colored with a specially made blue ticket for those with special seating.
The original hope was that Bush would be able to come for a luncheon and stay for the afternoon, but his demanding scheduled ended up leaving only between an hour-and-a-half to two hour visit to Fulton.
On the day of the big event, Air Force II landed at the Columbia Regional Airport at 1:45 p.m. as the members of the media were already gathering in Champ Auditorium. The Secret Service had ordered all media to be in place by 2 p.m. for the 3 p.m. lecture. Once the Vice President arrived by motorcade on campus, Bush and his wife Barbara, Missouri Governor Ashcroft, and few others quickly toured the Churchill Memorial and Library. During that tour, student John Scribner ’86 presented Bush with a Westminster necktie and Barbara was given a Churchill Memorial Cookbook by Westminster First Lady Eve Saunders. News reports say the Vice President greatly enjoyed the museum exhibits.
The Vice President then traveled through the underground passage to Champ Auditorium from the Undercroft to the stage. The Secret Service did not allow Bush to be part of the processional or the recessional. In his notification of that, Jack Marshall said: “None of us like this, but there is nothing we can do about it. The staff is adamant!”
The Missouri Military Academy marching band played four ruffles and flourishes and “Hail Columbia” as the Vice President entered the stage. This Academy band had been one of several that played for Churchill in 1941. One article says: “Although Mr. Bush didn’t have time to meet the cadets, he hefted the bust of Churchill he was presented so that the cadets could see it, and he mouthed a word of thanks.” Then he met with the band outside Champ to thank them for their performance.
Once the platform party was in place and Barbara Bush, Eva Saunders, and former Missouri Governor Christopher “Kit” Bond were seated in the front left row, College Chaplain Bill Young gave the invocation followed by the National Anthem, and then Vice President Bush was introduced by Governor Ashcroft. Before the speech, President Saunders presented an honorary degree to Bush with Dean of Faculty Richard Mattingly helping with the hooding.
Eight television cameras and over 70 journalists were in place to record the moment for history as the Vice President took the protective podium. One St. Louis television crew had landed a helicopter on Priest Field to attend the event, and local Fulton radio station KKCA covered the speech live.
No advance content of the copy of Bush’s address, “Churchill’s Vision and America’s Future,” was made available. The event was promoted by the White House as a “major foreign policy” speech. In the articles following the day, media sources characterized the remarks as a recapitulation of Reagan’s foreign policy agenda with no major news announcements coming out of the day, but all marveled that once again a major world figure would come to this “small college town off the beaten path” to make an appearance.
By 4:50 p.m. Vice President and Barbara Bush were on their way to St. Louis to attend two Republican fundraising events that evening, but neither the College nor Bush forgot that momentous visit, and he returned October 18, 1988, to deliver a campaign speech.
The Columbia Tribune editorial response to the lecture described it as a “rather efficient roundup of current administration positions,” but in speaking about being up close to George H. W. Bush stated: “When you see him in person, you notice his basic good nature. He is not a demonstrably aggressive person. Instead, he comes across as a good guy who puts himself on a plane with anyone he’s around. You like his manner and the look of his face.”
Westeryears believes all of America would agree with that assessment as the noble public servant comes to rest this week next to his beloved Barbara at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, TX. A President who never in his life, whether in the military, Congress, or the White House, forgot what a noble and sacred responsibility it was to serve this nation and its people and that his mission was to help others. And a man who never took himself or his importance too seriously and in fact, never forgot his mother telling him to not talk about himself. In a letter to his mother later in life, President Bush described the code he lived by. “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course. All that kind of thing,” he wrote her.
The Columbia Tribune did get one thing wrong in their personal assessment of the late President. President Bush wasn’t just a good guy–he was a great guy. And what a great honor it is to have his name appear on the long and impressive list of world leaders who have found their way to Westminster College.