A lifetime of public service and deep Yale ties: A remembrance of George H.W. Bush ’48 B.A.
George H.W. Bush ’48, 41st president of the United States, died on Nov. 30. A World War II aviator who came to Yale on the G.I. Bill, he was preceded in death by his wife of 73 years, Barbara.
“Yale has lost a loyal friend,” said President Peter Salovey. “Throughout his lifetime, President Bush exemplified the values of service and leadership we seek to foster at Yale. A decorated veteran, he spent three years as a naval aviator flying combat missions over the Pacific before entering Yale. Once here, he distinguished himself as a student and an athlete.”
“One of the great first basemen and baseball captains in Yale’s history, President Bush remained an avid ‘Bulldog,’ a fan of Yale athletics, and an especially ardent champion of our student-veterans. He set an example of dignified service to this country that will continue to inspire future generations at Yale,” Salovey said.
The United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and Bush decided to join the war effort. He graduated from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and enlisted in the U.S. Navy on his eighteenth birthday. After completing his training course, he received his commission to become the youngest naval aviator at that time. During World War II, Bush flew combat operations in the Pacific theater and participated in the rescue of several fellow service members. He was shot down in an operation 500 miles from Japan and later rescued by a U.S. submarine. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation.
After Japan’s surrender in 1945, Bush received an honorable discharge and enrolled at Yale. He and Barbara were already married; the couple would go on to have six children together. Bush had deep family connections to Yale. His father, Prescott Sheldon Bush, graduated in 1917, and three siblings, four nephews, two cousins, his son President George W. Bush ’68, and his granddaughter, Barbara Bush ’04, are alumni.
Like many in his class, Bush was a recipient of the G.I. Bill, and he completed his undergraduate degree in economics in an accelerated program in just two and a half years. In addition to his studies, he was a noted baseball player at Yale — a first baseman who rose to team captain his senior year. Considered one of the finest in Yale history, Bush’s baseball team went to two College World Series. Barbara served as scorekeeper, knew all the players, and was an active booster.
The Bushes first lived in a “tiny, adorable” apartment on Chapel Street, according to Barbara Bush’s memoir, but they had to leave after the birth of their son George, as the landlord did not allow babies. “The second place they lived was on Edwards Street,” said Judith Schiff, chief research archivist at Yale, “but that place didn’t accept dogs.” They finally made their home at a converted mansion on Hillhouse Avenue. “Forty people lived there, sharing the kitchen and bathrooms,” said Schiff. “It was right next to the Yale president’s house.”
After graduation, Bush and his family moved to west Texas where he worked in the oil business. In 1966, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, launching his career in public service. He subsequently served as ambassador to the United Nations and to China and then as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Under President Ronald Reagan, he served two terms as vice president. In 1988, Bush was elected the 41st President of the United States. He left public office in 1993.
Remembering a Proud Yalie
“President Bush exemplified public service,” said Michael Herbert ’16 B.A., a naval officer specializing in aviation. “I have a lot of respect for his service [in World War II].” In 2015, when Herbert was president of the Yale College Council (YCC), he and his chief of staff Joe English ’17 B.A. started a new Lifetime Achievement Award to honor prominent alumni, and Bush was the first recipient. Five members of the YCC were invited to visit the former president and first lady at their home in Kennebunkport, Maine, where they presented Bush with the award and shared stories over lunch. “They were generous, down-to-earth people,” Herbert said.
In 2017, the Yale baseball team capped off a school-record 34 wins and Ivy League Championship with two winning games in the NCAA Tournament. To celebrate, they, too, were invited to visit the Bushes in Kennebunkport, where they were presented with presidential pins and given a tour.
“It was an unforgettable experience and honor to be invited to their home,” said team captain Richard Slenker ’17. “President Bush is a man that has truly done it all and has done so with the utmost humility and grace. He is an example for us all to serve those around us.”
In the 50th Reunion Book for the Class of 1948, Bush reflected with great humility on his life of service and achievement:
“Who am I at the end of 50 years? Well, I am a happy man, a very happy man. I used to be a government employee, holding a wide variety of jobs. So many, in fact, that my wife, Barbara, became fond of saying ‘Poor George, he cannot hold a job.’ Now I am retired, unemployed. I do a lot of speaking — some for charity, some to pay the rent and buy the burgers. I travel abroad a lot, for I like touching base with the world leaders with whom I used to work. I used to love politics. Now I love politics no more. I love the fact that two sons are involved in the ‘arena,’ but I am happy on the sidelines. Yes, I am the George Bush that once was president of the United States of America. Now, at times, this seems hard for me to believe. All that is history, and the historians in the future will sort out the bad things I might have done from the good things. My priorities now are largely friends, family, and faith. I count my blessings every single day.”