HOUSTON -- George Herbert Walker Bush had rolled down the long, gray-tiled floor of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in his wheelchair just eight months ago to mourn the death of his wife Barbara.
But on this Thursday morning, it was the former president being carried, slowly and methodically, down the church’s center aisle, surrounded by nearly 1,000 friends and family. Guests, packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews of the white-walled, high-arched church, wiped tears from their eyes as Bush’s casket advanced toward the candle-lit altar.
And Reverend Dr. Russell J. Levenson, Jr., encouraged the tears to flow freely as he began his homily, saying the former president was never afraid to hold back tears anyway.
“He was ready for Heaven, and Heaven was ready for him,” said Levenson. “My guess is that on November 30 when the president arrived in Heaven that Barbara was standing there with her hands on her hips saying, ‘What took you so long?’ but then a big old Texas-sized hug from his wife and daughter with the words 'We adore you.'”
The former president’s grandson, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, and the secretary of state, James A. Baker III, delivered moving tributes.
George P. Bush called his grandfather the “most gracious, most decent, most humble man” he had known and underscored the 41st president’s “simple” legacy of service and dedication to his family.
“We all grew up in awe of my grandfather, a larger-than-life figure,” Bush said. “He’d be the first to host intense horseshoe matchups among family, Secret Service or any willing head of state while encouraging trash talk like ‘power outage’ if your horseshoe was short or ‘Woodrow Wilson’ if you’re long and your shoe hit the wooden back stop.”
After finishing his tribute to his grandfather, the man he lovingly called “Gampy,” Bush gently patted his grandfather's casket, draped in the American flag, before sinking back into his seat.
Despite fighting back tears, Baker recalled some light-hearted moments working with Bush, whom he called “a truly beautiful human being.”
“He had a very effective way of letting me know when the discussion was over,” said Baker to a loud chorus of laughter breaking up the otherwise solemn ceremony. “He said, ‘Baker, if you’re so smart, why am I president and you’re not?”
Ticking off Bush's litany of accomplishments — not including, he joked, public speaking — the former president's friend said Bush's determination to do the right thing shone through most brightly.
“He possessed the classic virtues of our civilization,” Baker said.
Melancholy pipe organ tones serenaded funeral guests as they shuffled into their pews and kissed one another on the cheeks. But that quickly gave way to a thunderous rendition of “America the Beautiful” as the ceremony kicked off, which again gave way to a tender choir-led version of “This is My Country,” mirroring the rapidly shifting tone of ceremony, sometimes loud and powerful, and at other times mellow.
The funeral also featured an a capella rendition of “Amazing Grace” by The Oak Ridge Boys, a country and gospel quartet, who first sang for the former president in October 1983, and a rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” by country music singer Reba McEntire.
In attendance at the funeral were the former president's granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager, the former president's children, George W., Jeb, Neil, Doro and Marvin, along with a number of other Bushes.
The former president’s casket then traveled by motorcade to a Union Pacific Railroad facility in Spring, where it was loaded onto a special train — Locomotive 4141, coated in shades of blue to match those covering Air Force One — to the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University in College Station. He will be buried there next to his wife Barbara, who died in April, and his daughter Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953 at age 3.
The Texas giant, known for his kindness and ability to compromise, found a home at Texas A&M in the 1990s when he selected the school to house his library and the Bush School of Government and Public Service.
A regular on campus, Bush would often fish in the lake behind the school, play horseshoes with students and visitors, work out in the recreational center and drop in on classes, according to the school’s website.
Supporters of the former president cheered as the special train passed through Magnolia, Navasota and other towns on its 70-mile journey from Spring to College Station.