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'She was like a grandmother to me'

Matt DeYoung • Apr 19, 2018 at 8:00 AM

Brooke Sheldon called Barbara Bush “honest, direct, kind, witty and smart.”

The former Spring Lake woman should know, as she served as the former first lady’s personal aide for more than a decade. 

“She was like a grandmother to me who I have the utmost respect for,” said Sheldon, a Spring Lake High School graduate now living in Maine. “She is exactly as you see on television. ... She always wanted the best of people and had an amazing way of breaking down stereotypes.”

Barbara Bush — the wife of the 41st president, George H.W. Bush; and the mother of the 43rd president, George W. Bush — died Tuesday evening at her home in Houston. She was 92.

Sheldon started as Mrs. Bush’s personal aide in 2000, following the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. 

“We left that first week for a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia,” Sheldon said via email Wednesday. “I traveled with her everywhere she went and, when we were not traveling, I worked out of the former president’s office, helping to coordinate her travel with the U.S. Secret Service and the host where she was traveling. I researched information and assisted with her speeches.

“As a personal aide, I was with her from when she woke up in the morning until she went to bed at night,” Sheldon continued. “They were long, eventful, fun days, and Mrs. Bush was always full of energy and poise. I was with her through George W. Bush’s presidential election where we campaigned across the country, one time where we participated in events in 10 states in two days. I was there when George W. became president, when the hanging chads paralyzed the nation, and during (9/11).”

Sheldon said Barbara Bush’s favorite causes were literacy and cancer; she was extremely passionate about both Maine and Texas, where she split her year between the two; and was an avid Houston Astros fan. 

“She always wanted the best of people and had an amazing way of breaking down stereotypes and finding the best in people,” Sheldon said. “Through her work with AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s when she was told that she could not touch babies who had the disease, she picked them up, hugged them and encouraged her husband to increase funding for AIDS research.

“While her family called her ‘the Enforcer,’ she loved her family above everything and wanted them to be the best they could be, to think of others before themselves, to serve others. And she was madly in love with George H.W. Bush, whom she married when she was 19.”

Sheldon frequently saw the Bushes at church on Sunday mornings, until deteriorating health made it too difficult for them to attend.

“She walked the beach every morning with her beloved dogs,” Sheldon said. “And, last fall, she attended an event I coordinated for the George Bush Presidential Library. It was a lobster bake with many of her friends in attendance. That was the last time I saw her, but I am always in close contact with the office of George Bush. ... We have known her time was limited and that she was at peace with that knowledge.”

Sheldon, who was vacationing in Portugal when she learned of Barbara Bush’s passing, will be headed to Houston for the funeral Saturday. 

“It’s been a difficult week, but we are all focusing on the amazing 92 years that she had,” Sheldon said.

Holman recalls meeting Barbara Bush

Jeanine Holman had worked as the events coordinator for Spring Lake Township-based International Aid when, in 1997, the organization hosted Barbara Bush as a speaker for a dinner at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids. 

“Every year we had a celebrity speaker, and she graciously came and spoke to an audience of, oh, probably 250 or 300 people,” Holman said. “She was charming, very warm, loving, kind — all the adjectives you’d like to have somebody describe you. She’s also very independent. I was in her room prior to the speech and she was coming down the steps, and I offered my hand to her. Oh no, she didn’t want my hand, she could do it by herself.”

Holman did not have any interaction with Barbara Bush after 1997, but that one meeting left a lasting impression. 

“It was an honor to have known her,” Holman said. “Meeting her impacted me. She was a lovely lady. I have her book. I read part of it, now I’m going to finish it.”

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