By Maya Rhodan
Barbara Bush, the beloved wife of one former president and mother of another, died at the age of 92 on Tuesday.
The former First Lady and former President George H.W. Bush had the longest-lasting marriage in presidential history – 73 years. As the Bush family matriarch, Barbara Bush dropped out of college to follow her childhood sweetheart – and kept following as he went from the House of Representatives to the United Nations, the Central Intelligence Agency, the office of Vice President and, finally, the White House. Her son George W. Bush became the 43rd President of the United States, while another son, Jeb Bush, served as governor of Florida and unsuccessfully sought the presidency in 2016. In total, she had 6 children and 14 grandchildren.
Her husband, George H.W. Bush, was at Barbara’s side when she passed, George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff Jean Becker said in a statement. “He held her hand all day today and was at her side” when she died, the statement said.
George W. Bush said in a statement: “Barbara Bush was a fabulous First Lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love, and literacy to millions. To us, she was so much more. Mom kept us on our toes and kept us laughing until the end.”
Her son Jeb Bush said his mother Barbara was a “force of nature.”
“I’m exceptionally privileged to be the son of George Bush and the exceptionally gracious, gregarious, fun, funny, loving, tough, smart, graceful woman who was the force of nature known as Barbara Bush,” Jeb Bush said. “Thank you for your prayers, and we look forward to celebrating and honoring her life and contributions to our family and great nation in the coming days.”
After a series of hospitalizations, a family spokesperson announced on April 15 that the former First Lady would no longer seek medical treatment. Instead, the statement read, she would focus on “comfort care.”
Despite her failing health, members of the Bush family have said she leaned into her fighting spirit in her final days. “She’s a fighter; she’s an enforcer,” her granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager said on NBC’s Today show.
Bush was born in 1925, the third of Pauline and Marvin Pierce’s four children. The family lived in Rye, New York, and Bush attended prep school at Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina. She was 15 years old when she met her future husband at a party in Connecticut while she was on Christmas break. About a year and a half later, the two were engaged — before he went off to serve in World War II. On Jan. 6, 1945, they married. Barbara has said George H.W. was the first man she’d ever kissed.
“When I tell this to my children, they just about throw up,” she said in 1989.
As a political figure, Bush was a widely respected and fierce woman who was appreciated for her biting wit, unwavering support of family, and her frank disposition. As TIME noted in a 1989 profile, the First Lady’s relaxed nature was a welcomed departure from the glitz of her predecessor, Nancy Reagan. She owned all of the characteristics that could have been written off as weaknesses — her snow-white hair, the $90 string of faux pearls she wore to hide her wrinkles, her size 14 frame.
“I think women like me because they don’t think I’m competitive, just nice,” she said once.
Her sense of humor came in handy on the campaign trail and her influence over her husband was noticeable. “During Bush’s post-election vacation, he was asked whether he had received any advice about his new job,” TIME reported in 1989. “He smiled broadly and pointed to his wife, standing nearby in tennis shoes and sweats. Barbara raised her eyebrows and said, ‘Just kidding.’ Replied Bush: ‘No, she’s not.’ “
Barbara championed many causes throughout her life, from homelessness to AIDS, but she is most known as an advocate for literacy. She founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy and served as its honorary chairperson.
When the Bush family announced that Barbara’s health was failing, there was an outpouring of support and prayer from politicians, pundits, and every day Americans.
Many on Twitter shared clips from a 1990 speech she delivered at Wellesley College’s commencement. At the time, some students protested the former First Lady’s selection because was not a “career woman.” The “Silver Fox” addressed the controversy head-on: “Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the President’s spouse – and I wish him well.”
In that same speech, Barbara notably said, “at the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent.”