George H.W. Bush first became the nation’s chief executive in Fort Worth, but he didn’t know it yet.
In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan was shot and injured on a Washington street, then-Vice President Bush had not yet left after a downtown speech to cattle ranchers. Aboard the Air Force Two vice-presidential jet, leaving what is now NAS Fort Worth, he learned he would be needed in Washington.
For a few hours until Reagan regained consciousness, Bush led the nation at a time of heightened tension with the Soviet Union.
It was the beginning of a calm, thoughtful White House career for a former Navy combat aviator and Houston oil executive who would go on to become Texas’ most influential and enduring Republican.
“He was a peaceful, loving man who has touched everybody in some way by his leadership,” said U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, a fellow baseball fan and a fundraiser for the presidential campaign of Bush’s oldest son, George W. Bush.
“What made him different from what we have in Washington today is that he was open-minded. He cared. He was a loving family man. I’d have a hard time thinking who we have that’s like that now.”
Last year, when Williams was hurt escaping a gunman shooting at Republicans practicing for a charity baseball game, he was still being treated at the hospital when his phone rang.
“He was the very first person to call,” Williams said.
“He told me he was praying for me. The nurses all looked up when I said, ‘Yes, sir, Mr. President.’“
Williams’ family and the Bushes had become friends during the younger Bush’s campaign. (Williams, now 69, and his late father, Fort Worth car dealer Jack Williams, had met the senior Bush many years earlier during Bush’s two failed campaigns for U.S. Senate.)
One day during the younger Bush’s campaign, Williams walked into the grill at Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth and found the senior Bush talking with Fort Worth lawyer Dee Kelly and oilman Charles Simmons.
He asked Williams, “Can my boy win?”
Williams replied, “Yes, sir, he is going to win.”
The families became such friends that the Williamses visited as guests at the Bushes’ summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
“President Bush loved my girls” and played pickup basketball with them, he said.
“The way I got to see him was different from the way a lot of people got to see him.”
One morning when the younger Bush was president, Williams and the senior Bush sat down for breakfast together in Kennebunkport.
Bush was reading The New York Times, Williams said.
“Then he looked up at me and said, ‘I don’t know why they dislike my boy.’“
They shared a love of baseball. Bush played first base at Yale and was a team captain, and Williams was an outfielder and later coach at TCU. For five years, the younger Bush was the managing partner of the Texas Rangers.
Williams retold how Bush jokingly claimed he popularized the sports shout “You da man” or “You the man.”
In 1961, as a Houston oil executive, Bush met young baseball slugger Rusty Staub and blurted in slang, “You the man” in front of owners and reporters. A few days later, the way Williams retold the story, a Houston sports headline read: “You da man.”
Williams also remembered picking up the senior Bush at Love Field to introduce evangelist Billy Graham’s 2002 crusade at Texas Stadium in Irving.
“Franklin Graham [Billy’s son] took us backstage and Billy and President Bush were talking,” Williams said.
“Out of nowhere, Bush says, ‘Where’s Roger?’
“He says, ‘Billy, this is my good friend.’ So I have a picture with President Bush shaking Billy Graham’s hand. It was just a powerful moment.”
Bush and Graham are shaking hands again.