KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — A flag flew at half-staff Wednesday as the sun rose over Walker’s Point, marking the passing of the matriarch of an American political dynasty.
Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday at the age of 92, is remembered across the state and country as the wife and mother of presidents, for her poise in public life and her devotion in the service of literacy and health care.
But in this coastal town where her family summered, the former first lady was recalled Wednesday as a gracious and active member of the community, a lover of flowers and walks along Maine’s rocky shore.
“They’re just such a part of the community. They carry themselves with such grace and class,” John Doyon said, as he took his morning walk past the Bush family compound. “It’s just hard not to see her return.”
For many Kennebunkport residents, the Bushes retain the human qualities that so often become indistinct in the glare of the national political spotlight. Locals remember them drinking beer, taking motorboat rides and calling ahead for enough lobster rolls to feed the large clan. The Bush matriarch is recalled for her habitual morning strolls along the beach at Walker’s Point and attendance at the nearby church.
“They were here every week,” said Billy Cummings, who walked with his standard poodle near St. Ann’s Episcopal Church on Wednesday morning.
From the old stone church, two cars were visible parked in front of the family’s homes on Walker’s Point. But the compound appeared quiet and a sign on the gate directed mourners to leave flowers at “Ganny’s Garden.”
In town, a small group was busy raking leaves and pruning branches at the public garden dedicated to Barbara Bush. Before 9 a.m., a few people had already left bouquets near a plaque marking the green space with the name Bush’s grandchildren used for her.
“We wanted to make sure we came today,” said Elizabeth Spahr as she raked leaves from among the still-empty poppy and tulip beds.
The cool, wet spring weather had put off the cleaning of the garden, Spahr explained, and Wednesday felt like the time to get to it.
“A lot of the flowers here are Barbara’s favorites,” she said.
Just inland from Walker’s Point in Biddeford, near where the Saco River meets the sea, officials of the University of New England stood in The George and Barbara Bush Center and discussed the couple’s generosity to the school.
The Bushes often took their boat past the university campus and eventually became involved in supporting the school, said officials at the university, which now devotes a room in the center to memorializing the couple’s lives and work and has a lecture series named for them.
At the lectures, Barbara Bush would demur the spotlight and routinely insisted that the university president take the honored seat next to her husband, according to John Tumiel, UNE chief compliance officer. But she took a fervent interest in the students who attended, often extending what were meant to be brief hellos.
“Mrs. Bush would grab them and talk to them for 15 minutes,” Tumiel said. “She’d want to know who they were and what their plans for their lives were.”
Inside the building that bears their names, UNE has gathered mementoes of the Bushes’ lives, representing both the heights to which they rose and how they remained anchored in Maine.
A pair of fishing rods lean in one corner of a room organized around a replica of the Resolute desk, the real version of which sits in the Oval Office in the White House.
In a glass case devoted to Barbara Bush, a fake pearl necklace and a collection of books sit next to a wide-brimmed straw hat.
Maine Public reporter Fred Bever contributed to this report.
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