On a pleasant September day in 2008, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush was 45 minutes late to a special ceremony at Georgetown College in his honor.
“I’m surprised you’re still here,” he joked with the waiting crowd. “I hate to keep people waiting.”
The wait hardly mattered to the crowd as the 41st president teased and joked with those around him while accepting the honor Georgetown College would name its newest facility the George H.W. Bush Center for Fitness.
Bush noted the timing was good as a recent Philadelphia newspaper article described his long-time friend and former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev as “spry” while describing Bush as “decrepit and old.”
Those who were there that day remember Bush who died Friday at age 94. Today he will be buried in Texas which followed a state funeral Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Jim Allison coordinated the event for Georgetown College and remembers working with the Secret Service and others in planning.
“The event formally naming the College’s fitness center in his honor was attended not only by Georgetown College students, faculty and staff, but also by area community leaders and public school children,” Allison said. “Throughout his stay, the president was gracious, very kind, and demonstrated a wonderful sense of humor. He seemed to enjoy the interaction with the crowd and was most cordial to all who attended a post-ceremony reception held inside the newly named George H.W. Bush Fitness Center.”
Former Georgetown College president William “Bill” Crouch became friends with Bush while serving on the board of the First Tee program, an international youth development organization introducing golf and its inherent values to young people. Bush was honorary chairperson at that time. His son, former President George W. Bush is the current honorary chairman.
Crouch is now CEO of Crouch and Associates, a consulting firm based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
“I remember (the First Tee board held) two meetings at President Bush’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine,” Crouch said via a telephone interview. “I was the only one in the room who had to be picked up at the airport — everyone else flew in on their private planes.
“Rush Lumbaugh, Herbert Kohler of the Kohler Corporation, a lot of bigwigs were there. After the meeting everyone was moving to the dining area when President Bush came up behind me and slipped his arm inside mine and said, ‘At my home we always pray before we eat. I would like for you to pray for our meal.’
“I was intimidated and thought, ‘oh my, I’ve got 15 seconds to come up with a prayer.’”
Fortunately, the prayer worked out fine and over the years Bush sent Crouch six notes, which he said he cherishes.
“The notes were all hand-written and very personal,” Crouch said.
While building the fitness center on campus, Crouch asked Tim Finchem who was PGA commissioner at the time and current First Tee board chairperson, if he thought Bush would be interested in allowing Georgetown College to name the facility in his honor.
Crouch had been asked to develop the inaugural First Tee Scholars Program, and he wanted Bush to be a part of that on the campus.
“I thought it would be special for Georgetown College and the community to have a president visit our campus, and have a building named in his honor,” Crouch said. “It was also an opportunity for the president to meet some of our First Tee Scholars.”
Bush agreed and said he would be honored and willing to come to campus for a ceremony. One of the stipulations was the visit had to coincide with the Ryder Cup which was to be held at the Valhalia Golf Club in Louisville in September of that year.
The 41st president visited with local officials and others an hour before and an hour after the ceremony and asked to meet every First Tee Scholar for a few moments each for a brief conversation and a photo, Crouch said. He also insisted a First Tee Scholar give a prayer prior to the ceremony, Crouch said.
“Following the ceremony he asked if I wanted to fly with him to Valhalia,” Crouch said. “We talked, but it was all about me. He did not want to talk about himself. He asked about my family, the college, the community. He was so gracious to all the people there.”
The subject of the fitness center arose during a First Tee meeting in Texas a couple weeks ago when Crouch was speaking with Bush’s son former president George W. Bush.
“I asked how his father was doing and he said his dad was fine,” Crouch said. “I told him Georgetown College’s fitness center was named for his father and he said, ‘Yea, I know all about Georgetown College and I know about the fitness center.’
“I thought that was nice President Bush thought enough to tell his son, another president, about Georgetown College.”
Mike Scogin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.