Barbara Bush made an indelible mark on the state of Maine, through her generous philanthropy — and the force of her personality. Her death this week at 92 is a deeply-felt loss for Kennebunkport, the family's summer home.
A little after sunrise, John Doyon is on his usual walk near the bluff where the Bush family compound, Walker's Point, rises out of the sea. He says when the American flag is raised on the lawn, Kennebunkport knows the Bushes have arrived, and summer is on it's way.
"So typically mid-May and again taken down in October,” says Doyon. “So it's seasonal but you always know — if you've not actually seen them come into town, you know that they've arrived by virtue of the flags being up."
Kennebunkport has been a place of summer refuge for generations of Bushes since George H.W. Bush’s father, the late U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut, married Dorothy Walker in the town in 1921.
Barbara, then Barbara Pierce, first visited in 1943, not long after she had been introduced to George. She and her future husband would eventually settle in Texas but continue the family tradition of summer visits to Walker’s Point. This day, more than 70 years since the 17-year-old Barbara Pierce first visited town, the flag is unfurled. But it's only at half-staff, marking the death of the woman who became the matriarch of a presidential dynasty and, here, a valued neighbor.
"Very sad, they're just such a part of the community,” Doyon says. “They carry themselves with such grace and class, it's just hard not to see her return. We wish them all the best."
"And she was always one of the most down-to-earth people,” says Elizabeth Spahr. “She used to walk her dogs on the beach every morning and happily chat with whoever sought to talk with her."
Spahr is sprucing up "Ganny's Garden" just down the road — Ganny is what Mrs. Bush's grandchildren called her. Someone's already dropped a colorful bouquet on a stone bench. Tokens of her pastimes are memorialized in stone here too – her sunhat, her Keds sneakers and, open on the bench, her favorite book, "Pride and Prejudice."
And Spahr says each of the gold-colored birch-trees that dot the garden's perimeter were planted in honor of Bush's many grandchildren, one for each.
"One of the high points of this garden is the poppies that grow here actually came from Walker's Point. So she had a lot of affection for this garden."
Spahr volunteers for the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, a cause Bush and her husband took up, donating money and land but, perhaps more importantly, putting their names and time into fundraising and public relations.
Their philanthropic energy was, in one case, driven by tragedy. The Bushes lost their child Robin at the age of three, and Mrs. Bush then became a passionate advocate for children's health. She later lent her name to the Barbara Bush Children's Hospital at Portland's Maine Medical Center.
Wiscasset resident Joe Westrich's daughter Madison was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of three, but the hospital's staff brought her back to health, and he says he's deeply grateful to the benefactor.
"And she's just warm and very compassionate for the children, from literacy to wellness, just an all-round loving person."
Westrich and his daughter met Mrs. Bush at a reading at the hospital that was staged to showcase her other big philanthropic effort, the Barbara Bush Family Literacy Foundation. He pitched her an idea – a specialty license plate to benefit the hospital.
"She says, ‘Oh, you're going to make me famous,’" he recalls.
The Bushes also worked with the University of New England on a lecture series. There’s a George and Barbara Bush Center at UNE’s Biddeford campus, named in their honor. UNE President James Herbert says both Bushes were “a fabric of the university.” “She in particular, with her focus on literacy, was very interested in education, so she would meet often and talk with our students in our education programs as well."
“We intentionally named the George and Barbara Bush Center, as well as the lecture series, after both of them,” Herbert says. “And to my knowledge it’s the only such buildings that are named after both George and Barbara Bush. And that’s to honor both his legacy as president and her legacy as really an extraordinary first lady with all that she contributed to her literacy initiatives, public health, the health of children and economic interests in the state of Maine and beyond.”
Many describe Mrs. Bush as somewhat retiring in public, preferring to cede the limelight to her husband, the 41st president of the United States. But behind the scenes she could be a fierce taskmaster, whether it was time to organize an event or put an errant youngster in line.
She deserved her reputation for bluntness, says her personal gardener at Walker's Point, Annie Kennedy.
"She is the most direct person on the planet,” says Kennedy.
Kennedy adds, though, that Mrs. Bush's tender and loyal qualities shone through, particularly in quiet moments with the man who proposed to her decades ago, out on the rocks of Walker's Point. She came across them once, now elderly, in side-by-side recliners.
"She was needle-pointing and he had earphones and was listening to the TV, and they [were] smiling... and I thought, ‘Wow this is just a moment of life where they've gone 70 years through life and here they are like every other couple that could possibly have reached that, just living normally.’"
Kennedy's job afforded that occasionally privileged window on the former first lady's private life — and maybe even her awareness of mortality. One recent summer as Mrs. Bush made her way around the grounds with a walker, she collected some broken glass in a plastic cup.
“And she said, 'Annie, take these, throw them over the sea wall.' And I said, 'How far do you want me to throw them?' – 'As far as you can!' She was making sea-glass. She'd never be around to see it made. And those are things that speak volumes about a person who's alive and conscious of time."
Barbara Bush's legacy will continue to build well beyond a few bits of sea-glass some future child might find on Kennebunkport's shores. And that should start soon. the bill to authorize the specialty license plate for the children's hospital is now pending in the Maine Legislature. Leaders there say they fully intend to make it law.
Irwin Gratz and Willis Ryder Arnold also contributed reporting to this story. This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative and originally aired on Maine Public Radio.