Former President George H.W. Bush was approached about having his presidential library on the Texas A&M University campus shortly after being elected as commander in chief. Michel T. Halbouty, class of 1930, a Texas oil businessman and Bush’s friend, is credited with first approaching Bush with the idea in a private meeting.
A combined effort of the university and the cities of Bryan and College Station worked to prove to Bush that A&M would the ideal place for his library and museum. As a show of support, College Station renamed its Jersey Street to George Bush Drive in September 1989. Finally, in May 1991, Bush phoned Ross Margraves Jr., then chairman of the A&M Board of Regents, to give him the good news: A&M would be home to his presidential library.
Building a foundation
The site chosen was 90 acres of Research Park on West Campus. From 1991 to 1995, more than $85 million was raised for the Manhattan Construction Co. of Houston to build three buildings: the Bush Library and Museum, Annenberg Presidential Conference Center and an academic building for a new A&M department, according to a November 1997 Eagle article.
The conference center houses two auditoriums, an international center and offices. It included an apartment for George and Barbara Bush when they visited.
The George Bush School of Government and Public Service was officially announced in 1995. Part of the draw for the former president was the prospect for academic collaboration. The school within the College of Liberal Arts’ umbrella focuses on “educating principled leaders, conducting research” and giving back to the community, according to the Bush School’s website. Bush’s dedication to public service inspired the curriculum. Courses are taught to promote public service.
The fundraising goal was met eight months ahead of schedule. Countries including Japan, Sudan and Kuwait all contributed more than $1 million each. Fundraisers said it was a testament to Bush’s life.
With the conclusion of Bush’s administration, the first load of documents and artifacts covering his life and political career arrived from Washington, D.C. in January 1993. Initially the collection included 38 million documents, more than a million photographs, videos and sound recordings. The documents were not made available until January 1998 as per the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which prohibits the documents from being viewed until five years after a president leaves office.
A groundbreaking ceremony took place on Nov. 30, 1994, with President Bush, his wife and family. Enrollment opened for the Bush School in fall 1997.
On Nov. 6, 1997, the presidential library was officially dedicated. Bush and his family were there for the opening. In a rare reunion, all the living presidents at the time and their wives attended the ceremony. Nancy Reagan attended in her husband’s stead. (Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years prior.) “Lady Bird” Johnson, wife of 37th President Lyndon Baines Johnson, also attended the ceremony.
Other guests included U.S. congressmen and senators, and six former foreign heads of government and Hollywood actors. Bush’s son Jeb presided as master of ceremonies. George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, gave the first speech about his parents. Rev. Billy Graham gave the invocation.
All the presidents and Reagan gave speeches during the ceremony. Ford described a presidential library as a “classroom of democracy, a place to find inspiration as well as information.”
Representing Texas A&M, the Ross Volunteers and Singing Cadets also took part in the ceremony. The U.S. Army Parachuting Team, a team specializing in acrobatic paratrooper feats, dropped in for a special performance.
The museum and library were open to the public Nov. 7. Over the next two months, 67,677 visitors saw the artifact displays, digital interactive exhibits and replicas of rooms in the White House, including the Oval Office. The first full year brought 252,039 visitors. The library and museum are funded through an endowment and donations.
Texas is the first state to have three presidential libraries. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin was the first. Texas 21 and 290 are dubbed the “Presidential Corridor.” President George W. Bush chose Southern Methodist University, his wife’s alma mater, as the site of his presidential library, bringing the Texas total to three. That library was dedicated in April 2013.
Shortly after the groundbreaking in 1994, George H.W. Bush announced a symposium on the end of the Cold War. Guest speakers included former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former presidential Cabinet members.
Annual guest speakers in a variety of fields continue to attend forums and lecture series to discuss recent and current events in the United States, including Buzz Aldrin, Bob Knight, Chuck Norris, Colin Powell and Diane Sawyer. Several members of the Bush family have taken part in panels and been guest speakers.
The 41st president sponsored an award for Excellence in Public Service. Bush posthumously awarded Ronald Reagan with the honor on what would have been his 100th birthday in February 2011. Other recipients include Gorbachev (2001); Arnold Schwarzennegger, then-governor of California (2004); and Robert Gates, then-secretary of defense (2007).
Bush also made the library grounds his landing site for parachute jumps to celebrate a few birthdays and to raise money for nonprofit organizations in 1999, 2004 and 2007.
In addition to the more than 44 million documents, exhibit topics vary from significant women in American history, black history and aviation. Traveling exhibits that are shared with museums across the country have allowed visitors to learn about World War II, view original national documents and get an inside look at the presidents' homes.
Permanent artifacts include family photos over several generations, his WWII military identification card, excerpts from letters and the baseball mitt from his Yale days. The natural flow of the museum follows his life, starting with his parents, his childhood, WWII, marriage to Barbara, family pets, his move to Texas, his growing family, time in China as U.S. liaison, his political career, hobbies and retirement.
The displays often give an in-depth look at his choices and personal thoughts on events, with letters capturing that moment in time. For example, at an audio kiosk, visitors can listen to Barbara Bush read a letter George wrote to his mother following the death of their daughter, Robin, in 1953.
The section about the Republican National Committee, of which Bush was chairman during the 1972 Watergate scandal, includes correspondence to President Richard Nixon encouraging his resignation, conveying disappointment and support. At the same time, Bush wrote to his sons, trying to give them advice based on that moment in American history.
Some of the exhibits are interactive with touch-screen computers. Approximately 3,000 foreign and domestic gifts Bush received while president and vice president are archived, but only a fraction are displayed. Candelabras, dishes, paintings and even a leather saddle with silver ornamentation from Mexico are showcased. All the gifts can be viewed with the help of an interactive display screen that includes photos and some anecdotes of when the president or First Lady received a gift.
Guests can take pictures in the replicated Oval Office and experience what decisions were made in the White House Situation Room before the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991.
The section covering the war in Kuwait features a look at soldiers’ lives and audio of their experience, as well as the aftermath of eight months of devastation from Iraq’s invasion into Kuwait. The people of Kuwait gave Bush a century-year-old door with the names of Americans who died in the war inscribed in gold. As a testament to Kuwait’s gratitude toward Bush and the United States, the door is based on a Kuwait proverb, also inscribed on the door. It states if a man gives you the key to his home, you are friends. But if he gives you the door, you are family.
The Bush family’s dedication to public service is evident throughout the museum. A complementary exhibit focuses on Barbara Bush’s duties as first lady, particularly her work on promoting literacy. The volunteer-based Points of Light Foundation encourages literacy and education within communities across the country.
One of the last sections of the museum focuses on fighting cancer and the nonprofit organization C-Change, created by the Bushes. The organization fosters dialogue about cancer and supports different groups in combining resources and information.
Outside the classroom
During the planning process, Bush and his wife decided they wanted to be buried on the library grounds after they die. The couple requested that the plot be simple, like those at Arlington National Cemetery. The site is on the east bank of a creek that runs behind the complex and is hidden among oak trees and protected by an iron fence. In May 2000, their daughter Robin, who died at age 3 from leukemia, was reinterred there from the family plot in Connecticut. Barbara Bush died April 17, 2018, and was buried there on April 21. George H.W. Bush died Dec. 1, 2018, and was buried Dec. 6.
Located in the middle of the complex is a monument 12 feet tall and 18 feet wide depicting stallions jumping over the rubble of the Berlin Wall. The sculpture titled “The Day the Wall Came Down” is by Veryl Goodnight of Santa Fe, N.M.
Behind the Bush Library is a pond stocked with fish and the Barbara Bush Rose Garden. The public is allowed to fish at the pond on a catch-and-release basis. George Bush was known to fish there when visiting his library.
Part of the responsibility of a presidential library, according to the National Archives and Records Administration, is providing public programs. The Bush Library programs encourage literacy and promote children’s education. Barbara Bush hosted a national radio show in 1991 called Mrs. Bush’s Story Time to encourage parents to read aloud with their children. She and her daughter-in-law Laura read to schoolchildren in the community.
The Bush Library announced in April 2012 a partnership with The Malvern School, a private preschool program in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, to focus on preschool education. Barbara Bush helped launch the partnership. According to a November 2012 press release, the Story Time programs based on the tapes from Barbara Bush's radio show have improved the students' reading skills and taught lessons in civic duty. Activity plans based on Story Time and developed by the Malvern School, along with more information on educational activities for all grades, are available on the Bush Library's website.
Other public programs include the annual Easter Egg Hunt, Fourth of July fireworks show and Holidays in the Rotunda. The facility also collaborates to provide an environment for larger exhibits than local museums can't accommodate. From Oct. 21, 2013, to Jan. 4, 2014, the library hosted an exhibit in collaboration with the city of College Station in commemorating the 75th anniversary of the city's incorporation.
Once a month the library plays classic movies and hosts a storyteller’s guild for local schools.
After September 11, 2001, the presidential library worked with the Bush School to raise awareness and dispel cultural stereotypes. During the first anniversary, the Bush Library showcased an exhibit called After 9/11: Messages From the World and Images of Ground Zero. In 2002, halfway through George W. Bush’s first term as president, an exhibit centered on the Bushes being the second father and son to be elected.
To refresh the main exhibit on Bush’s life, an $8.3 million renovation began in 2007. The museum was reopened on the 10th anniversary of the 1997 dedication. An audio guide system was added so visitors can rent a device that offers commentary from George or Barbara Bush or their daughter Dorothy Koch to complement a specific exhibit. The audio tour is also available for download from the Bush Library's website or iTunes.
For more information on events and exhibits at the Bush Library and Museum, visit bush.library.tamu.edu.
— Compiled by Claire Heathman