President George H. W. Bush was a man of courage, humor and faith. America and the entire world were blessed by his steadfast leadership, and my wife Gena and I were honored to call him our friend. We join the Bush family and all Americans in thanking God for this man who devoted his life to the defense of freedom for all mankind. He modeled better than most a life and legacy of “service above self.”
I’ve shared with people for the nearly 30 years I’ve known the Bushes that the 41st president and former first lady Barbara were two of the finest, most decent and good people this world has ever produced. Think what you will about their politics, but they belonged to an elite class of integrity-filled national and global leaders who not only talked their talk but walked their walk. They were first-class Americans, parents and grandparents, whom we all can emulate.
The Bushes just happened to reside most of their early and latter lives in our home state of Texas, where Gena and I were honored to get to know them quite well. We’ve shared many choice moments together through the years, from their days in the White House until our last lunch together earlier this year.
I first became acquainted with president and Mrs. Bush in 1988 when I campaigned for his presidency. It was an easy choice and such an honor to do so because he was such a great man.
My son Michael and I even did a little jogging when he was president.
In 1990, then President Bush helped us start our life mission and personal foundation, KICKSTART Kids, which teaches character through karate in Texas middle schools.
President and Mrs. Bush blessed us with their presence countless times at KICKSTART Kids events and fundraisers through the next three decades. As a part of our profound thanks, in 2017, Gena and I gave them our Founders’ Vision Award.
President Bush’s is known for his many personal handwritten notes, for which Gena and I have collected many from him over the years. Here is one in particular he wrote to our twins Dakota and Danilee when they were born:
President Bush similarly honored and blessed me big time again in 2009 by presenting me with the McLane Leadership Business Award for my martial arts, entrepreneur and humanitarian accomplishments. I’m still humbled by the honor.
One of the most fun times I had with President and Mrs. Bush was when I skydived with him on his 80th birthday. Mrs. Bush was a little nervous for him to jump at that age, but he was an honored veteran and in good hands with the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights. She also had to get used to him jumping, as he did it again for his 85th and 90th birthdays, and planned to do it on his 95th too!
One time President and Mrs. Bush invited Gena and me to spend the weekend with them at their home in Kennebunkport, Maine. When we arrived, President Bush was just getting ready to take his speedboat out for a spin. “Come on!” he said. “Come along with me!” We looked at Barbara, and Gena asked, “Mrs. Bush, are you going?” Barbara’s eyebrows rose, as she said, “Oh no! You go right ahead.” (We should have read the tea leaves in her eyebrows!)
We climbed into the boat, and the president said, “Gena you stand up here, next to me.” Gena dutifully stepped up to the steering wheel where President Bush was standing. Meanwhile, I got in the back of the boat along with a Secret Service agent. Three more agents followed us, close behind in a smaller boat.
President Bush had barely pulled away from the dock and into deep waters when he thrust the throttle forward. The speedboat’s front end rose in the air, and we roared across the rough waters. Gena was hanging on for dear life! She was so scared that she started laughing hysterically. The president saw Gena laughing and assumed she was having a wonderful time, so he tromped down on the 300 hp engine’s throttle even further. The speedboat was virtually flying across the waves!
I was hanging on the back of the boat with the Secret Service agent, who simply shook his head and rolled his eyes as if to say, “Boys will be boys!” Needless to say, we made it back to shore and spent one of the most memorable weekends of our life with the Bushes.
Like for so many others, President and Mrs. Bush’s relationship and marriage was a personal model for Gena and me. They had an unparalleled love story and devotion to one another that desperately needs to be modeled in our day. Seventy-three years of love and commitment in marriage. Most only hope to live that long, let alone be married for that longevity. (That’s not only believing in the sanctity of marriage but also living it.)
Earlier this year before Barbara passed, Gena and I along with our dear friends Keith and Alice Mosing, had our final lunch with President and Mrs. Bush at Rise-n-2 in Houston. They were the typical amazing and gracious hosts they have always been. Like with myriad of others, they always made us feel at home and so special, like we were the only people on the planet. They were always so interested in what we were doing and our latest ventures. We spoke about family, mutual friends, faith, and of course, KICKSTART Kids and our new CForce bottled water.
As we drove away, Gena reminded me, “Barbara has always been at the top of the list of women I admire most. She’s an amazingly strong and resilient lady, who I will forever love and respect.” And I replied, “President Bush has always been the very same for me.” One of the most outstanding qualities about both of them was their perseverance and determination to do the right thing under all circumstances, even the most difficult ones.
As most know by now, President and Mrs. Bush were no strangers to tough times. When he was only 20 years old, his WW2 plane was shot down by enemy fire. It resulted in not only the deaths of his two other crewmen and friends, but also he was lost at sea for hours and survived only when he was providentially picked up by a U.S. submarine.
In 1991, a Nor’easter clobbered their 88-year-old house his grandfather built on the rocky Atlantic Coast with 30-foot high waves and catastrophic winds that virtually gutted and destroyed the home, sucking their belongings and even the guesthouse out to sea.
In 1992, when he lost the presidential bid to Bill Clinton, he recorded in his private dairies that he felt like a “failed president.” It was one of his lowest moments. Only 15 days later his beloved mother, who was his dearest model for values and integrity, passed away.
But probably the gravest of all difficulties for the Bushes was the passing of their three-year old daughter when they were still virtually young newlyweds.
George W. Bush was born first in 1946. Pauline Robinson Bush – known as Robin – was born second in 1949. She was diagnosed with leukemia right after her brother Jeb was born in 1953.
The young Bushes faced some of their life’s greatest struggles and decisions back then. It was excruciating, particularly on President Bush, to watch her go through her treatments.
Though her medical team extended Robin’s life by roughly six months, she went home to heaven on Oct. 11, 1953, just two months shy of her fourth birthday. Her death devastated both of the Bushes, and particularly young George.
The Los Angeles Times explained: “In his 1987 biography ‘Looking Forward,’ president Bush said prayer helped him and his wife through Robin’s treatment: ‘Barbara and I sustained each other; but in the end, it was our faith that truly sustained us, as gradually but surely, Robin slipped away.'”
No matter how one is prepared, death often shakes us to the depths of our souls. That was the case even with the passing of President and Mrs. Bush. Though we all knew their passing was coming, they still rattled our hearts and spirits the day we heard, because we loved them so much.
Gena and I were honored to be among the guests at President Bush’s Houston Celebration of Life on Thursday, as we were there for Mrs. Bush’s funeral eight months earlier when she passed. It was tough to say “farewell for now” to our friends, but the services were so fitting and sacredly special. We were all moved to our core by the personal testimonies, Oakridge Boys singing “Amazing Grace,” Reba McEntire’s “Lord’s Prayer,” and President Bush’s grandkids’ readings from the Bible.
At both of the president’s services this week – in Houston and Washington, D.C. – his pastor shared this promise from Jesus, whose birth we celebrate each Christmas: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in Me will never die. Do you believe this?
President and Mrs. Bush answered that question with a resounding “yes.” That is why for nearly 50 years they attended St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, our nation’s largest Episcopal church, where both of their Celebrations of Life were held.
I love the story I heard that President Bush told his grandkids one day that he knew he would be in heaven and was not afraid of dying. Then he quipped with his great sense of humor: “I’m just a little confused how I am supposed to get around Heaven and find everyone!”
One thing is for sure. I’m sure the best part of all for President Bush when he reached those Pearly Gates – beyond seeing his Savior – was when he was reunited with his beloved Barbara and their beautiful daughter Robin. Can you imagine the moment?
I know one other thing for certain. President Bush heard these words from his Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with much. Now, enter into your rest.”