The following excerpt is taken from Barbara Bush’s Pearls of Wisdom.
I truly feel that if more people could read, write, and comprehend, so many of our social problems could be solved.
It was her clarion call for forty years. Barbara Bush never gave up on her dream that America would become a more literate country.
She talked about literacy to anyone who would listen. But she did much more than talk. She established a foundation. She visited literacy programs all over the country— in schools, libraries, community centers, prisons, wherever people were learning to read. She read to thousands of children, mostly in person but also by satellite and, in later years, through Skype. She mentioned the importance of literacy in every speech she gave, no matter the audience or topic. She helped raise tens of millions of dollars, especially through the annual Celebration of Reading events she and President Bush founded and hosted in Houston, Dallas, Washington, DC, Maryland, Florida, and Maine.
She even had two of her dogs write books, giving all their proceeds to literacy.
She adopted literacy as her cause in 1978, when her husband was thinking about running for president. As she often explained to her audiences, she knew she needed to pick a specific cause, but what? While running in Houston’s Memorial Park in the summer of 1978, she thought about all the things that worried her—drugs, teenage pregnancy, homelessness, a growing school dropout rate—and she suddenly realized everything she worried about would be better if more people could read, write, and comprehend. That would mean they would be more likely to stay in school, get a job, have a better life. She had found her cause.
One small problem: She told the campaign staff she had her cause but failed to tell them she knew nothing about literacy. At least not yet.
So it was with great surprise, when she arrived at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee for an event, that she was met by a Sister Camille, who announced they were all gathered to hear her thoughts about literacy.
After a few panicked moments, she looked around the room at all the expectant faces and asked them this question:
If you were married to the president and had the opportunity to really make a dent in the field of illit- eracy, what one thing would you do?… Each person, tell me how you would go about it.
They had so many ideas to offer her, they ran out of time. So out of that experience came, of course, some advice from the future First Lady, which she included at the end of this story:
When in doubt, keep quiet, listen, and let others talk. They’ll be happy, and you might learn some- thing.
Mrs. Bush was often frustrated, during the eight years she was the wife of the vice president, by the lack of press attention paid to her cause. C. Fred’s Story: A Dog’s Life, a children’s book published in 1984 and “written” by the Bushes’ dog, helped. But it really annoyed her when hordes of press would come every December when she and usually a grandchild or two put the top on the National Christmas Tree—a job that had been delegated to her by First Lady Nancy Reagan. Where was the press when she was talking literacy?
Her husband becoming president in 1989 solved the problem of no press interest. She announced her foundation in March of that year, and she was off and running again. Their new dog Millie “wrote” Millie’s Book in 1990, raising more than a million dollars for the foundation.
And she barnstormed the country talking about literacy. Here is some of what she said at a fund-raising dinner for the Lubbock, Texas, Area Literacy Coalition on May 22, 1992:
I’m especially happy to be here to cheer on our growing and thriving literacy coalition. Every single adult learner in this room, and this nation, deserves our deepest admiration and respect.
Nothing takes more courage or persistence or heart than taking a second chance on education. And nothing can have a greater impact on people’s lives— at home, on the job, and in the community.
Congratulations, all of you, for showing us it’s never too late, or too hard, to learn… I even know a sixty-six-year-old man named George who announced recently that he’s going back to school to become computer literate.
. . . I’ve talked to all kinds of real people—newcomers struggling with a strange new language; single mothers getting off welfare; factory workers getting on assembly lines; high school dropouts who want to drop back in; and prison inmates who want to get out and stay out.
And I’ve talked to the CEOs of big and little companies, and civic and education leaders, and mayors and governors, and to students and teachers.
They’ve all taught me a great deal… And I’d like to emphasize the most important thing I’ve learned: Literacy is everybody’s business. Period.
. . . Literacy is not just learning to read and write better. It’s people making better choices, raising children, doing old and new jobs better, and being better citizens all around.
First Lady Barbara Bush was famous for handing out advice. From friends and family to heads of state and Supreme Court justices, and certainly to her staff, her advice ranged from what to wear, what to say or not say, and how to live your life.
She especially loved visiting with students of all ages, from kindergartners to college graduates. When she turned 80, she owned up to all her advice-giving and explained it this way: After all, in 80 years of living, I have survived 6 children, 17 grandchildren, 6 wars, a book by Kitty Kelly, two presidents, two governors, big Election Day wins and big Election Day losses, and 61 years of marriage to a husband who keeps jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. So, it's just possible that along the way I've learned a thing or two.
At the end of the day, she taught all of us some valuable lessons. As First Lady, she made a point of cuddling a baby with AIDS and hugging a young man who was HIV positive and whose family had rejected him, showing us by example the importance of compassion and the myth of fear. As a mother, she made sure we all knew that your children must come first, and one of the most important things you can do is to read to them. As a friend and mentor, she showed that you had to be true to yourself, and even at the end of her life, she taught us how to die with grace.