Former President George H.W. Bush, who died Friday night, will be remembered for many things. His service to his country — through the Navy, the CIA and the presidency — top the list, of course. For Mainers, he will be remembered for bringing the White House to Maine with his frequent visits, and visitors, to Walker’s Point, the family’s long-time compound in Kennebunkport.
Many of Bush’s life lessons — about service, family, community, cooperation and the need for a quiet retreat — remain relevant today.
Many, including Democrats, are remembering the former president, who called for “a kinder and gentler nation,” as a “quiet hero,” a fitting description of the last US president to serve in World War II.
Bush was likely the Navy’s youngest flying officer when, just before his 19th birthday, he was assigned to fly torpedo bombers off aircraft carriers in the Pacific theater, according to his biographer John Meacham.
At dawn on Sept. 2, 1944, Bush was slated to fly in a strike over Chichi Jima, a Japanese island about 500 miles from the mainland. The island was a stronghold for communications and supplies for the Japanese, and it was heavily guarded. An hour later, his plane was hit. Bush continued to steer the plane, dropping bombs and hitting his target, a radio tower. Bush managed to inflate a life raft but the wind was carrying him toward Chichi Jima, so Bush began paddling in the opposite direction with his arms. “For a while there I thought I was done,” Bush told Meacham.
On his last visit home before beginning his naval duties, Bush met Barbara Pierce. They corresponded throughout the war and married in 1945. His 73-year marriage to Barbara, who died in April, is a story of devotion, but also of overcoming hardship and tragedy, including the death of their 3-year-old daughter Robin in 1953.
“You have given me joy that few men know,” Bush wrote to his wife in a letter that was published as part of a collection in 1999.
“I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband,” he wrote in the letter.
Bush spent many summers, beginning in his childhood, at the Walker’s Point compound his family has owned in Kennebunkport since the late 19th century. The coastal enclave served as the summer White House during Bush’s presidency from 1989 until 1993 — and as an important place of stability for the couple who moved more than 30 times to accommodate his work as a businessman, CIA director and elected official.
“Walker’s Point is a home away from home, an anchor to windward,” Bush told the Bangor Daily News in 1990. “I cherish the time Barbara and I spend there.”
During his presidency, Bush would host foreign dignitaries at Walker’s Point, including United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, French President Francois Mitterrand and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. But even in those days the compound remained a retreat — a place he could be with family and friends, and contemplate decisions away from the clamor of Washington, D.C.
Both Bushes, but particularly Barbara, were longtime supporters of the pediatric wing of Maine Medical Center, which is now known as The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in Portland.
“Whenever people think about what it means to give back to one’s country and make contributions that will be remembered and appreciated for generations, they will recall the name of President George H.W. Bush,” former US Sen. Olympia Snowe and former Gov. John McKernan said in a statement Saturday morning.
“With his lifelong love for Maine, President Bush has left an indelible imprint on our state as an unwavering friend and source of tremendous pride.”