When I was a young reporter for the Cincinnati Post, I tagged along with a more senior colleague to a reception and speech by then-Vice President George Bush at a downtown hotel. I felt pretty cool and journalistic hanging out with members of the national press corps, some of whom I had idolized and were the reason I wanted to be a reporter.
During the reception, the vice president and his wife, Barbara Pierce Bush ’47, expertly worked the room, and eventually Mrs. Bush ended up a couple of feet away from me. She held out her hand and said in her firm, husky, patrician voice, “Hello, I’m Barbara Bush. It’s so nice to meet you.” I said hello back, shook her hand and blurted out, “I just graduated from Smith.”
With that, she stopped, her bright eyes lit up and she broke into a warm grin. “You DID?! How WONDERFUL! What house were you in?” Baldwin, I told her. Despite having passed the Seven Sisters version of the fraternity handshake, I assumed our conversation was over.
But Mrs. Bush wasn’t finished with me. She took my hand firmly in hers and said, “Don’t move,” and then, holding onto me tightly, she continued greeting other guests. After a few minutes, she turned back to me and asked several questions: my major, what was I doing now, etc.
“I LOVED Smith,” she said. “But I didn’t graduate. I left to marry George. You’re a smart girl to get your education and start a career.”
Then Mrs. Bush asked, “Have you met George yet? No? You MUST meet him!” Whereupon, she marched me across the room. “George! You must meet Stephanie. She’s a Smithie!” After some pleasant small talk, I excused myself and returned to the press area. The audience took their seats and the program began with Mrs. Bush.
A few minutes later, a reporter nudged me and said, “I think she’s trying to get your attention.” And sure enough, there was Mrs. Bush, turned around in her seat, waving at me and gesturing, “Come!”
Awkwardly, I made my way across the room. When I reached her, she scooted to one side of her chair, patted the empty space next to her and said, “Sit with me. My butt’s a lot bigger than yours, but you’re a tiny thing, so we can both fit. We Smith women stick together.”
And so I squeezed into the chair, and together, Mrs. Bush and I watched her husband speak. Whenever her husband said something funny, she leaned in close to me and rolled her eyes or winked as if we were both in on some private joke.
When it was over and she was about to be whisked out, she hugged me tightly and said, “All the best to you, my dear. You’re gonna knock ’em dead, whatever you do!”
I’ve been thinking a lot of Mrs. Bush recently and of the time I spent with her on that long-ago day when the world and I and she were so much younger. It takes me aback to realize that I am now exactly the same age she was then.
And as I think about her passing at age 92 after a well-lived life, I’m reminded of something Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
And on that day, Barbara Bush made me feel special and interesting and full of potential.
Rest well, Mrs. Bush. This Smithie won’t ever forget you.
Stephanie Jones ’82, president of Stephanie Jones Strategies, is a lawyer and consultant in Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. She recently served in the Obama administration as deputy chief of staff and senior counselor to the secretary in the U.S. Department of Transportation.
SAQ, Summer 2018