Remembering Barbara Bush

HOUSTON – Former first lady Barbara Bush died Tuesday at the age of 92. 

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KPRC2 special: Remembering Barbara Bush - Houston's first lady

Barbara Pierce was born in Flushing, Queens, New York City in June 1925. She was the third of four children born to Marvin and Pauline Pierce.

VIDEO: Family gathers at Bush home in Tanglewood

Barbara grew up in Rye, New York. She attended Milton Public School, Rye Country Day School, and eventually boarding school at Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina.

VIDEO: Reactions from around the world after Barbara Bush's passing

In 1941, at only 16 years old, Barbara met the man she would spend the rest of her life with at a dance while on Christmas vacation. A young Navy pilot named George Herbert Walker Bush.

VIDEO: Students gather to honor first lady in College Station

Barbara was immediately smitten.

VIDEO: Preparations underway for Barbara Bush's services

"I could hardly breathe. I thought he was so beautiful," Barbara recalled.

VIDEO: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner talks about Barbara Bush's passing

Within a year-and-a-half, the two were engaged to be married, just before George went off to fight in World War II. The young couple kept in touch by writing letters.

In 1944, the love affair nearly ended in tragedy. George's plane was shot down over the island of Chi Chi Jima. He was rescued, and made his way home to marry the love of his life.

On Jan. 6 1945, the two began the next chapter of their lives by exchanging vows at the First Presbyterian Church in Rye, New York.

The young couple moved to Texas when George entered the oil business after graduating from Yale. They eventually settled in Midland.

George and Barbara started their family in 1946. Over the following 13 years, the couple had six children. George Walker was first, followed by Robin and then Jeb.

But in 1953 a tragedy for the family.

"She told us that Robin had leukemia. Well, what do you do for leukemia. Well, she said, 'Well, you don't do anything, she's going to die.' And we said, 'No, I don't think so.' She said, 'My advice is take her home, love her, in about two weeks she'll be gone.'"

But they didn't give up that easily. The couple traveled the country, looking for a miracle.

However, Robin died months later, just shy of her fourth birthday.

"I was combing her hair, and holding her hand, I saw that little body, I saw her spirit go," Barbara said.

It was a tragedy that would impact the couple deeply.

They went on to have three more children: Neil, Marvin and Dorothy.

The family relocated to west Texas, and while George built his oil business, Barbara tended to the family.

In 1959 George entered politics. Barbara helped George win his first race as the Harris County Republican chairman.

Years later, he ran for the U.S. Senate and lost. But when he did win a Congressional seat two years later, and Barbara was right by his side.

As the wife of a Congressman, Barbara worked with various charities and women's groups in Washington D.C. She formed relationships with diplomats from all over the world when George was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

The couple then moved across the world when George was appointed head of the U.S. Liaison Office in the People's Republic of China.

In 1980, Barbara defended her husband's experience when George announced his candidacy for president. She caused a stir when she said she supported ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and was pro-choice on abortion.

California Governor Ronald Reagan was nominated, but he picked George as his running mate.

It was then Barbara would choose what would soon become her legacy.

She spent eight years as second lady. Her trademark white hair and pearls made her a household name.

During this time, she began working with several different literacy organizations.

In 1984 she wrote a children's book about her family told from the point of view of her dog C. Fred, called C. Fred's story. All of the proceeds for the book went to literacy charities.

The American public also got a taste of Barbara's humor and sharp wit.

During the 1984 presidential campaign she made headlines when she told the press that she could not say on television what she thought of vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, but said, "It rhymes with rich." She later apologized.

In 1988, vice president Bush announced his candidacy for president, to succeed President Reagan. During the campaign, USA Today asked Mrs. Bush and Kitty Dukakis, the wife of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, to each write a weekly column.

George Bush won the nomination, and eventually the election. And Barbara became the first lady of the United States.

She continued her work for literacy in the White House.

"Every single thing would be better in this world if more people could read, write, and comprehend," she said.

And made it her mission to make a difference.

"I did ask our staff to plan something every single day that helped somebody, because you do have the bully pulpit it's a mistake if you don't use it truthfully," she said.

One of those events was a visit to a center in D.C. that worked with men, women, and babies who were HIV positive.

A photo of that moment appeared in papers worldwide.

She was also known to be spontaneous as first lady. At one point insisting she and her staff to go a Washington D.C. mall, after reading a newspaper article about stores kicking the Salvation Army bell ringers off their property.

But her passion for literacy was the top priority.

"All experts tell us that the way a child learns to read starts at home, the parents are the first teachers, and it's just a wonderful way for children to be able to learn," she said.

In 1989, she founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

In 1991, President Bush signed the National Literacy Act into law. The act gave millions of adults a second chance to earn their high school diplomas. And many, many more the chance to learn to read, write, and speak English.

President Bush lost the re-election in 1992 to Bill Clinton, and in January 1993, the Bushes returned to private life, settling into their Tanglewood home.

From sporting events and restaurants, to the rodeo, and everyday errands around town, the president and former first lady were often spotted out and about.

The Bushes regularly attended services at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston.

From Astros games to Texans games, the couple supported their home teams.

They spent summers up north in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jon Meacham was granted unprecedented access to the Bush's to write "Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush."

In 2013 Barbara's vision of literacy expanded, to focus on Houston.

The Bush family created the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, an organization separate from the national Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

Mrs. Bush served as honorary chairman of the foundation, and continued to spread the foundation's message by making public appearances and reading at Houston-area schools.

And even appearing on the popular children's program "Sesame Street."

The foundation even paired the former first lady with some very recognizable Houston sports figures, like Houston Texans star J.J. Watt.

"Mrs. Bush, I brought our playbook on how to beat low literacy," Watt said in the video.

"Oh great, come on in," she said.

Several schools across the country, a library in Harris County and a children's hospital in Portland, Maine, all carry her name.