A state says farewell to George H.W. Bush: ‘one of the best Texans’

George H.W. Bush funeral train

The train carrying the casket of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush travels through Old Town Spring, Texas, on Thursday, Dec. 6, on its journey from Houston to College Station, where Bush will be buried.
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The train carrying the casket of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush travels through Old Town Spring, Texas, on Thursday, Dec. 6, on its journey from Houston to College Station, where Bush will be buried.

Two days ago, Washington said goodbye to a president.

On Thursday, President George H.W. Bush came home as a Texan.

First with songs from the Oak Ridge Boys and Reba McEntire, then with a funeral procession by train across cattle pastures and countryside, the Lone Star State said farewell to a grandfather, friend and neighbor who deeply loved all things Texan.

In the drizzling rain at a rural rail crossing outside small-town Navasota, Houston resident Trey Thompson said he waited to see Bush and Union Pacific engine No. 4141 because “he wasn’t even from Texas, and he was one of the best Texans I’ve ever known.”

The night before, he and Lauren Thompson had stood three hours in 45-degree wind chill to pay respects at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.

“The Bushes have done so much for our city and Texas,” Lauren Thompson said, glancing first at the sky and then up the railroad track from beneath an umbrella as the rain picked up.

George and late first lady Barbara Bush “did things real people do,” Trey Thompson said: “They went to (Houston) Astros (baseball) games. They went to basketball games. They went out for Mexican food and pizza. Not to some big-name chef.”

In a eulogy, grandson George P. Bush, the state land commissioner, described a “typical spread” at the Bushes’: “barbecue, tacos, pork rinds with hot sauce — of course, with a healthy dose of Blue Bell ice cream.”

Somehow, a Connecticut senator’s son born into a Yale legacy became an iconic figure who inspired Texans all the way to No. 4141’s last stop Thursday: Texas A&M University.

“We consider him a fellow Texan — he fits our way of life and our politics,” said George Frendorf of La Grange.

He and Susan Frendorf drove the 60 miles to stand in the rain for the procession because “it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said.

Earlier, guests in St. Martin’s church heard former Secretary of State James Baker describe his best friend as “beyond any doubt, our nation’s very best one-term president” and a man with ”the courage of a warrior, but when the time came for prudence ... the greater courage of a peacemaker.”

George P. Bush’s eulogy was about his beloved “Gampy,” but it was also about Bush’s combination of duty and modesty: “He flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific, was shot down and rescued at sea. Yet he never saw his own heroism as being any greater than anyone else’s.”

Lawyer Robert Estrada of Fort Worth was among a handful of Dallas-Fort Worth guests, including former Texas Rangers executive Nolan Ryan and CBS Sports producer Lance Barrow.

Estrada said he met Bush in 1970 during Bush’s failed U.S. Senate campaign.

“He was already as Texan as the ranchers,” Estrada said. “He tuned into country-Western music and loved it.”

The Oak Ridge Boys sang “Amazing Grace” before McEntire sang the Lord’s Prayer.

But the church broke into the loudest applause after the church choir sang a powerful rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“The choir director tells us, ‘Try to knock the back wall down,’“ said Barbara Housh, now a Granbury resident but still a St. Martin’s choir soprano.

The Bushes have attended St. Martin’s 50 years.

“To us, he’s somebody we would see all the time,” she said.

“If you read his book, what’s impressive is how he says humility is a virtue.”

He never tried to be a big deal.

But he was one of the biggest Texans of all.

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Columnist Bud Kennedy is a Fort Worth guy who covered high school football at 16 and has moved on to two Super Bowls, seven political conventions and 16 Texas Legislature sessions. First on the scene of a 1988 DFW Airport crash, he interviewed passengers running from the burning plane. He made his first appearance in the paper before he was born: He was sold for $600 in the adoption classifieds.