HOUSTON — The spiritual home for the past half century to George H.W. and Barbara Bush began its final goodbye Wednesday as the 41st president’s body was carried inside with echoes of Hail to Chief still ringing in the air.
And mourners, some dressed in their Sunday finest and some in the clothing of blue-collar workers, streamed in by the hundreds to pay final respects to a fellow Houstonian and onetime leader of the free world who died Friday at 94.
Larry and Nancy Buffington joined the seemingly endless line of mourners because, they said, Bush exemplified the image of a national leader.
“This makes me homesick for the values and integrity that belongs in the White House,” said Larry Buffington, who was in line outside church in Houston for more than four hours.
Nancy Buffington, who met the 41st president several years ago after a commencement exercise at Johns Hopkins University, said she was struck by his down-to-earth accessibility.
“He was so personable,” she said. And larger, physically, than she expected.
“There was a real charisma about him.”
Frank Cano Sr., a Korean War veteran, came with his grown children to say goodbye to a man he only knew from television.
“He was our president, said Cano’s son, Frank Jr. “He was only president for four years, but look what he accomplished: The Berlin Wall came down. He built a coalition for Desert Storm. And our dad wanted to be here, because he was a fellow veteran.”
Barry McBee, a White House fellow under Bush in 1989 and 1990, drove from Austin to Houston to join the mourners.
“It was an honor to work for him,” said McBee, an assistant chancellor at the University of Texas System. “He was a man of dignity and grace.”
Bush’s body entered St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston at 6:30 p.m. to the sounds of the U.S. Air Force Band of the West. A parade of emergency vehicles with red and blue lights flashing led the body from Ellington Field to the sprawling red brick church.
“President George H.W. Bush and the late Mrs. Barbara Pierce Bush worshiped at St. Martin’s for more than 50 years, and now it is our turn to show our respect and support as our congregation, as well as our nation, grieve this loss,” reads a message on the website of the 66-year-old church that towers overs Houston’s upscale Tanglewood neighborhood west of downtown.
Earlier in the day several contingents of uniformed Houston police officers patrolled the grounds while the nearby streets were being blocked off to make way for the motorcade that would carry Bush’s body from Ellington Field after the state funeral in Washington, D.C.
St. Martin’s was founded in 1952 and is now the largest Episcopal church in North America with some 9,000 members. It was also the site of Barbara Bush’s funeral in April.
The final service will be Thursday morning. And then Bush’s body will be taken by the Union Pacific Railroad’s Presidential Train Car for burial alongside his wife and their daughter, Robin, who died from leukemia short of her 4th birthday.