As the nation remembers a former president, many in the Maine town of Kennebunkport are remembering a neighbor. His entire life, George Bush called the town his second home. Bush and former First Lady Barbara, who passed away in April, were seen in Kennebunkport both as celebrities and as just another family in the community.
The Main Street Barber Shop in Kennebunk is the kind of shop where customers are greeted by name as they walk in the door — and one of those regulars was a former president.
“I've been cutting his hair for probably about eight or nine years now,” said barber Ed Beckett. George H. W. Bush even followed Beckett from his old shop in Kennebunkport to this new one, a few miles away. Beckett said when Bush sat in the barber’s chair, he was just like any other customer — chatting about normal things, like fishing and family.
“You know, regardless of political views. I mean as a person, he is just the sweetest man. And he comes in and he shakes hands with everyone and takes pictures with the kids and asks about my family,” Beckett said.
That’s something a lot of people around Kennebunkport say about the Bushes. It’s not like they really blended in. When they walked around town, people noticed and would sometimes ask for pictures with them. But George and Barbara Bush knew that kind of thing meant a lot to people, and they were always gracious about it.
David Mulvar is a waiter at Mabel’s Lobster Claw, a restaurant the Bushes often visited. Mulvar remembered one of those dinners.
“After Mr. Bush finished his meal, he went over to every table in the restaurant and said hello and greeted them,” he said. “And then as he was leaving the whole restaurant stood up gave him a standing ovation. It was pretty cool.”
Mulvar pointed to a photo hanging above a booth in the restaurant. It’s from the wedding of another waiter.
“That's Josh, and that's his wife Kate,” he said. “And then there's George and Barbara.” The Bushes knew Josh just from coming to the restaurant. And in the photo, they look delighted to be at his wedding.
The Bushes also went to the wedding of Helen Thorgalsen and Bonnie Clement, who run the local market HB Provisions. Clement said Bush was very excited about attending.
“We would see him and he'd say, ‘Well I haven't seen my invitation yet. I am being invited, right?’ We would be like, ‘Well you haven't seen it because we haven't sent him out yet. Yes you'll be invited.’”
Thorgalsen and Clement first met the Bushes when they came in to check out the store when it opened, 17 years ago. The former president and first lady became regulars, stopping by for a cup of coffee and local gossip. Then one day, he invited Clement and Thorgalsen to come out on his boat.
“It was fast. President Bush, he likes to ride drive his boat fast,” said Thorgalsen.
Years later, when Clement and Thorgalsen and got married, it didn’t matter to Bush that it was a same-sex wedding, something many Republican politicians still opposed.
“It was not a political statement,” said Clement. “He wasn't speaking for the Republican Party. He was speaking as our friends.”
The Bushes were also friends with Evelyn and Robert Paine. Robert is a painter, and the couple runs a small gallery of his works in Kennebunkport. They met Barbara at an art show featuring his painting of the Bush family home in Kennebunkport — Walker’s Point.
“Barbara came to the show, and my artwork was in the show,” Robert said. “She said, ‘I got to get George over here,’ and we've known them ever since.”
Robert later painted a portrait of them that hangs in Bush's presidential library center in Texas. Evelyn and Robert would sometimes get together with the Bushes for dinner at Mabel’s Lobster Claw.
“They’re the happiest couple I’ve ever known,” Evelyn said. Other times, the couple would visit the Bushes at Walker’s Point. “He was excellent at fixing you a drink. But it was strong!” she said with a laugh.
And being a generous bartender, she says, was just one of his many great characteristics.
“If everybody in this country could emulate those people, we’d have a much better place to be,” Evelyn said.
For the Paines, the loss of George H. W. Bush, like Barbara before him, is far more personal that the loss of a national figure. Like much of Kennebunkport, they’re mourning the loss of a friend.