Houston — Barbara Pierce Bush was remembered Saturday as a loyal and devoted wife, stern but affectionate mother, good-humored friend and authentic first lady at a funeral attended by four former presidents including her husband and son.
Past presidents and pizzeria owners, heads of state and historians, and people from all walks of life crowded into St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston to pay their respects to Barbara Bush, the former first lady who touched many across the nation with her no-nonsense style and affinity for helping others.
Mrs. Bush died Tuesday at age 92.
Despite her many roles, her son Jeb Bush said, the story of President and Mrs. Bush was first and foremost a love story. He quoted a 1994 love letter his father, former president George H.W. Bush, wrote on their wedding anniversary.
"Will you marry me? Oops, I forgot, you did that 49 years ago today!" the elder Bush wrote. “I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that can not hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband.”
The invitation-only funeral service for Bush began at 11 a.m. CT at St. Martin's, where Bush and her longtime husband, former president George H.W. Bush, regularly attended services.
Among the estimated 1,500 people attending were four former presidents — all living presidents except Jimmy Carter, who was traveling overseas — as well as first lady Melania Trump and former first ladies. Television cameras captured intimate moments among the first families, with former president Barack Obama sharing a word with Mrs. Trump.
The current first lady, knowing of Mrs. Bush's devotion to the staff during her four years living at the White House, brought as guests two career staffers from the White House residence former head maitre d' George Hainey, and usher Buddy Carter.
Jeb Bush delivered a eulogy, as did longtime friend Susan Baker, wife of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and historian Jon Meacham.
At about 9 a.m., tour buses began delivering guests to St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, as clusters of Houston Police officers and state troopers patrolled the perimeter.
As the occasional helicopter circled overhead, camouflage-clad troops peered through binoculars from the rooftops of nearby buildings and police motorcycles drove through the streets outside the church, silent but with lights blazing.
VIPs filled up the first 10 rows of pews, and included members of first families dating back to the Kennedys. Barack and Michelle Obama took their seat in the left front row, next to Bill and Hillary Clinton. At the far end of the same row sat former vice presidents Dick Cheney and Dan Quails, with their second ladies.
Across the aisle, George H.W. Bush was wheeled into his position, front row right side, wearing his trademark colorful socks — with pictures of books in homage to his wife's longtime commitment to promoting literacy.
Other guests filled all the pews on the floor and rear balcony of the cavernous church. As more guests streamed in, extra folding chairs were brought out. Some women wore blue outfits, an homage to Barbara Bush’s affinity for wearing blue.
As the casket entered the church, eight pallbearers — all Bush grandchildren — gently placed their hands on the casket containing Barbara Bush and wheeled it down the length of the middle aisle, then took their seats.
The casket was draped over with a large cloth covering embroidered with a golden cross.
Traditional hymns played on a pipe organ: "Nearer My God," "Praise to the Lord," "In the Garden," "Amazing Grace" and "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee."
Her granddaughters read scripture passages from Ecclesiastes ("For everything there is a season"), and from Proverbs. "A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain," the passage began.
Meacham, a biographer of Mrs. Bush's husband, began his eulogy with an example of her trademark humor. When he told her that he was mistaken at an airport bookstore for novelist John Grisham, she replied, "How do you think poor John Grisham would feel? He's a very handsome man."
"It was a fair and funny point," Meacham said.
Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, called his mother a "teacher and role model of how to live a life of purpose and meaning." But he also recounted stories of her role as the family "enforcer."
"She called her leadership style a benevolent dictatorship, but honestly it wasn’t always benevolent," he joked.
He also recounted her 73-year marriage to his dad. "Our family has had a front row seat to the most amazing love story," he said.
When he asked his mom recently how she felt about the idea of dying, he said, she didn't miss a beat. "She said, 'Jeb, I believe in Jesus and he is my savior. I don’t want to leave your dad, but I know I will be in a beautiful place.’”
Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., the Bush's pastor for the last 13 years, revealed that Bush came to him in 2015 — at the age of 90 — and asked to be confirmed in the church.
But the eulogies were brief. "The least of Barbara's virtues was patience," Levenson said in his homily. "She liked to say, 'Why the hold up?' Barbara liked to see things move along."
After a blessing from the Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, the Episcopal Bishop of Texas, the eight pallbearers took their positions on either side of the casket. A 50-voice choir sang “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” — hand-picked by Barbara Bush — as the casket was wheeled down the aisle.
Former president George W. Bush pushed his father, former president George H.W. Bush, down the aisle after her.
Following the service, a motorcade will ferry Barbara Bush’s body 90 miles northwest to the George Bush Presidential Library Center on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station, near which she will be laid to rest in a private burial.
On Friday, about 2,500 people attended the public viewing of Barbara Bush’s casket. They arrived early at Second Baptist Church and were shuttled to St. Martin’s after security sweeps. Attendees got a surprise visit from George H.W. Bush, who decided last minute to greet visitors.
"It was entirely the president’s idea to go there," Jim McGrath, the president's spokesman, told The Associated Press.
Many of the women at Friday's viewing wore blue blouses or pearl necklaces in honor of Barbara Bush.
One of those pearl-wearing visitors, Carolyn Bischoff, drove 36 miles from the Houston suburb of Dickinson to attend. Bischoff said she admired Barbara Bush’s tough persona, wit and dedication to fighting illiteracy. But her lasting memory of the former first lady is at Houston Astros games, her feet perched up on the seat in front of her, scoring the game on a scorecard, she said.
“The pearls I’m wearing today are for her,” Bischoff said. “But I do wish I’d worn them with my World Series Astros T-shirt. I think she would’ve gotten a good laugh and given me a thumbs up for that, too.”
The Bushes moved 29 times during their marriage but settled in Houston in 1959, according to the National First Ladies’ Library. It was here that George H.W. Bush began his career in politics, getting elected to Republican Party chairman of Harris County in 1962.
Throughout their six decades in Houston, the couple became integral members of the community, attending theaters and Astros games, becoming active in charity events, and, through her namesake foundation, the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, helping thousands of Houston-area kids to learn to read.
Among those in attendance on Saturday will be Fawaz "Fuzzy" Hajjar, a Syrian national and owner of Fuzzy's Pizza & Cafe, and his wife, Rita Hajjar. The Bushes were regulars at Fuzzy's for more than 25 years and became close friends with the Hajjars, inviting them to birthday parties and sharing dinners.
"It's unfortunate to lose such a woman," Rita Hajjar said. "People truly loved her."