UNIVERSITY PARK -- Saying it reflects his determination "to expand the reach of freedom," former President George W. Bush formally dedicated his presidential complex Thursday on the grounds of Southern Methodist University."It wasn't always easy, and it certainly wasn't always popular," an emotional Bush told the thousands of national and world leaders and dignitaries gathered to honor the 43rd president.Praised by former presidents for his dedication to country and for his guidance during one of the darkest points in U.S. history, Bush said he still has much he wants to do -- help children, assist countries in fighting poverty and disease, empower women nationwide and continue to support service members."I dedicate this library with an unshakable faith in the future of our country," he said. "Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation's best days lie ahead."God bless," he said quietly as he briefly choked up and wiped away a tear.More than 10,000 people crowded onto the campus for the formal dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, a $250 million, three-story complex with a library, a museum and an institute honoring the onetime Texas governor.A rare gathering of top leaders -- "the world's most exclusive club" of President Barack Obama and four former presidents, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- witnessed the dedication of the center.Other dignitaries in attendance were first lady Michelle Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former first lady Rosalynn Carter, various world leaders, and members of the Bush family, including former first ladies Barbara Bush and Laura Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush."This is a Texas-sized party," President Obama said. "And that's worthy of what we're here to do today: honor the life and legacy of the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush."Obama has had harsh words for Bush through the years but offered nothing but praise Thursday. "To know the man is to like the man," Obama said."No one can be completely ready for this office," Obama added. "But America needs leaders who are willing to face the storm head-on, even as they pray for God's strength and wisdom so that they can do what they believe is right. And that's what the leaders with whom I share this stage have all done. That's what President George W. Bush chose to do. That's why I'm honored to be part of today's celebration."Mr. President, for your service, for your courage, for your sense of humor and, most of all, for your love of country, thank you very much," he said. "From all the citizens of the United States of America, God bless you."The 11/2-hour outdoor ceremony brought national attention to SMU, as well as heavy security, especially since it happened not long after explosions at the Boston Marathon killed three and injured more than 100.Police officers, firefighters, Secret Service agents -- and Secret Service riflemen positioned on the center's roof -- were present throughout the area, protecting dignitaries and helping control the crowd.Nearby, protesters marched and carried signs, continuing a weeklong effort to draw attention to what they call war crimes committed by the Bush administration.Reports indicate that there were a few arrests.Key momentA much-anticipated moment came when all five presidents entered, standing together onstage as George H.W. Bush, who was recently hospitalized, was escorted in a wheelchair. This was their first public appearance together since January 2009, when they gathered at the White House before Obama was sworn in.George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, spoke briefly, thanking the throngs of people present for turning out to honor his son.While his speech was short, the standing ovation for him wasn't, and his son and wife helped him stand to acknowledge the cheers.Carter thanked George W. Bush for working to find peace between North and South Sudan in 2005 and for expanding aid to Africa."Mr. President, let me say I am filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you," he said.And former President Clinton, who said he just enjoys talking about politics with George W. Bush, praised the 43rd president for continuing his work in many areas, including global health."We are here to celebrate a country we all love, a service we all rendered," he said, looking at Bush. "I am very grateful."The George W. Bush Presidential Center is a 226,560-square-foot complex that houses a library and a museum, presidential archives, a public policy institute, the George W. Bush Foundation and a 15-acre park, all honoring Bush's two terms in office.The red-brick-and-limestone building on 23 acres at SMU features signature architecture such as Freedom Hall, which has a 360-degree high-definition video wall and a 67-foot tower with a lantern that glows at night.Located at the alma mater of Bush's wife, Laura, the center was designed by New York architect Robert A.M. Stern and landscaped by Michael Van Valkenburgh.Inside, it features a Decisions Point Theater and a life-size "Oval Office" that looks as though it was taken straight out of the White House during Bush's tenure from 2001 to 2009. Outside, visitors find the Texas Rose Garden, a version of the White House Rose Garden with plants that flourish in the Texas heat.The center will open to the public Wednesday.This is the 13th presidential library operated by the National Archives and Records Administration -- and the third in Texas. The other two are the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin and the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station.Invitation onlyThe invitation-only guest list was an elite group that included former Vice President Dick Cheney; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair; NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen; former Australian Prime Minister John Howard; former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; former Ghanaian President John Kufuor; Gov. Rick Perry; Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz; and U.S. Reps. Kay Granger of Fort Worth, Joe Barton of Ennis, Michael Burgess of Lewisville, Roger Williams of Austin and Kenny Marchant of Coppell.Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Ross Perot Jr., former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, former Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo and Texas Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan also attended.Ryan, who is occasionally seen enjoying a Rangers game sitting next to Bush, who once co-owned the team, said he showed up because he wanted to show his support for his longtime friend."It's a very special day in the Bushes' lives, and we want to be here to share it with them," Ryan said.Inside the museum are more than 40,000 items from the Bush presidency, from the 9 mm Glock pistol that Saddam Hussein had when he was found in a spider hole in Iraq, to the bullhorn that Bush used when visiting ground zero after 9-11.Other items include more than 200 million emails, 80 terabytes of digital information, nearly 70 million pages of documents and nearly 4 million photos.Laura Bush said the museum reminds her of when her husband was standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9-11 and all the things he tried to do to guide the country through the days, weeks and months after the attacks."My George is a man who, when someone needs a hand, offers them his arms," she said. "This is the spirit I hope is forever captured in this building."Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report.Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610Twitter: @annatinsley
George W. Bush Presidential Center
Location: Southern Methodist University, 2943 SMU Blvd.
Dedication: The invitation-only ceremony will be from 10 to 11:30 a.m. today. An event to light Freedom Hall, a space topped with a lantern-shaped roof that will glow at night, will be held from 8:30 to 9 p.m. Most cable news networks will cover the ceremony, and there's a webcast at www.bushcenter.org.
Public opening: The center officially opens to the public Wednesday. The hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
To learn more: For information on visiting, contact the visitor services coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org. For museum questions, call 214-346-1557 or email email@example.com. To write former President George W. Bush or former first lady Laura Bush, send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org or formal correspondence to: Office of George W. Bush, P.O. Box 259000, Dallas, TX 75225-9000
Witnesses to history
A photo page shows memorable sights from the big day. 4A
Recalling an Opening Day
from Bush's past. 6A
A closer look at the warm words and well wishes. 6A