Chattanoogans and Americans everywhere are remembering the life of former President George H.W. Bush following his death Friday night at the age of 94.
His passing comes after a long and rich life full of ambition, service and goodwill – most of which was demonstrated in some form during at least five trips he made to Chattanooga over the years.
His wife, Barbara, who died on April 17, actually topped him with at least six visits, one or two of which were on her own to support worthy charities and causes.
Bush’s parents lived briefly in Kingsport, Tenn., in the early 1920s before he was born, the first formal Bush visit to Chattanooga apparently came in early May 1980.
On the day of the Tennessee Primary for president and other local races, he made a last-minute campaign pitch during a news conference at Lovell Field’s Hangar One. With him was state Sen. and future Knoxville Mayor Victor Ashe, one of the few state elected leaders to support him.
The late push apparently did no good, however, as future President Ronald Reagan received 80 percent of the votes among Hamilton County Republicans, compared to only 14 percent for Mr. Bush.
But Mr. Bush would not be down for long, as he was eventually picked as Mr. Reagan’s vice presidential running mate, and they went on to defeat incumbent Jimmy Carter in a landslide in November 1980.
His next visit came on Oct. 6, 1985, when the longtime Episcopalian was presented an honorary doctor of civil laws degree at the University of the South at Sewanee by Vice Chancellor Robert Ayres Jr.
Later that Sunday, Vice President and Mrs. Bush took part in a $50-per-person fund-raising reception at the downtown Trade Center/Holiday Inn, followed by a dinner afterward that cost $500 per person and $750 per couple. The money was to go to fund the 1986 Tennessee gubernatorial and Third District congressional races.
Although wife Barbara came during the 1988 campaign for president when Mr. Bush was running to succeed term-limited Ronald Reagan, he apparently did not.
However, Mr. Bush did come in 1992, when he was running for re-election. Perhaps the reason he came that year was that Bill Clinton had picked Sen. Al Gore from Tennessee as his running mate, and Mr. Bush knew he needed to fight for votes in Tennessee.
On Sept. 29, 1992, some 7,200 supporters jammed the tarmac at Signal Aviation to hear him. Some high school bands played “Rocky Top” a few times as the supporters awaited his arrival, and the popular UT and UTC fight song was also played as he approached the speaking podium.
Country music stars Ricky Skaggs and Naomi Judd also entertained, as did the local Forester Sisters.
Attending with President Bush were former Gov. Lamar Alexander and former White House Chief of Staff Howard Baker.
Knowing his poll numbers were not looking overly good, he went on the attack against former Arkansas Gov. Clinton in his 30-minute speech, criticizing his record as governor by citing the state health insurance and civil rights programs.
He also criticized the pollution of the White River in Arkansas under Gov. Clinton’s watch and found a connection to Chattanooga by saying, “I’m told that there’s a new aquarium in town and maybe they’ll have a live fish from the polluted White River in Arkansas. That would be a rare species exhibit.”
As was written up in the papers afterward, Mr. Bush greeted a few people standing near him after his speech, and Chattanoogan Linda Hisey said she received a greeting kiss from the president.
Mr. Bush would lose to President Clinton in part due to the stagnant economy, and he would go on to become a gracious and popular ex-president, even becoming a good friend of President Clinton after they both left office.
Americans even learned later that he had quite an emotional side and would often cry when reminiscing about his family.
On April 1, 2000, former President Bush – who was no doubt more relaxed than he had been while on the campaign trail – came to Chattanooga with his wife to help christen the new BellSouth Park downtown. Adorning a Chattanooga Lookouts jacket, he threw out the opening pitch with Barbara and they greeted the players of both the Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds who were playing an exhibition game.
They were good friends with Lookouts co-owners Frank Burke and his father, Daniel Burke. The Bushes had known the elder Burkes for years in both New York and Maine.
The Bushes then left the game to attend a $1,000-a-couple fund-raising reception at the home of then-developer – and later Mayor and U.S. Senator – Bob Corker at 1649 Minnekahda Road in Riverview. Mrs. Bush had also attended a fund-raiser there 12 years before when the home was owned by Gordon Street.
Mr. Bush – who would later be profiled in the popular 2015 biography, “Destiny and Power,” written by former Chattanoogan Jon Meacham – also enjoyed a little fine dining at least one more time in Chattanooga, although it was in a lower-key setting.
A day or two after the fact, Chattanoogans learned that on April 2, 2003, he had flown into Chattanooga to eat with two unidentified friends at J. Alexander’s restaurant at Hamilton Place.
Accompanied by 12 Secret Service agents, he reportedly enjoyed a strip steak and a vodka on the rocks. He supposedly greeted customers and was given a standing ovation when he left.
“He was kind and gentle, very engaging to everybody he talked to,” Nashville-based J. Alexander’s Corp. CEO Lonnie Stout II told the Chattanooga Times Free Press afterward.
He was saluted then at J. Alexander’s, and now most Americans – Republicans and Democrats alike – are praising his life of positive service and civility as well.