In June 1948, after the College World Series and graduation day at Yale, young George H.W. Bush packed up his cranberry-red Studebaker (a graduation gift from his father) and headed the car's distinctive nose in a southwesterly direction. The little car got him to Odessa and to a shotgun duplex, where two prostitutes lived on the other side of the wall. "Kind of humble," Bush called it. While the young war hero from Connecticut scrambled to gain a foothold in the West Texas oil patch, the rented dwelling would be home for himself and his wife, Barbara, and their little boy George.
The young New England patricians had come to a strange new world. "First, it was flat, perfectly flat, like no land they had ever seen," Richard Ben Cramer wrote in his classic "What It Takes: The Way to the White House." ''No brooks, streams, rivers. No native trees — no trees. It was bright, and hot like they'd never felt heat, and gritty everywhere with dust."
That little Studebaker — a restored version of the car is on permanent display at the Bush Library in College Station — was the Bushes' chariot to a new life. It carried them to an adventure, an opportunity to create lives for themselves far away from received wisdom, hoary tradition and family expectations.
Texas — first Odessa-Midland, and then Houston — offered a young family that opportunity. It was in the tradition of an opportunity held out slightly more than a century earlier to Stephen F. Austin's Old Three Hundred and to newcomers eager to start afresh in a swampy, sultry settlement beside a mosquito-ridden bayou. It was the same sort of opportunity that lured to the Lone Star State countless young war veterans eager, like the Bushes, to begin building homes, families and careers. The place was open, unformed and rich with promise.
"When I wanted to learn the ways of the world, I didn't go to the Kennedy School," Bush told delegates to the 1988 Texas state GOP convention. "I came to Texas, in 1948."
Flash forward nearly 45 years beyond the Bushes' West Texas adventure. "They won't come back to Houston," people were saying as George and Barbara Bush prepared to vacate the White House after years of living in Washington. "They'll go back East."
But they didn't go back East. Houston was home. They not only came home, but they made themselves an integral part of this community. They continued serving, as they had their whole lives. The Houston Literacy Foundation bears Barbara's name. George was an invaluable resource for a city expanding its economic horizon toward China. And they were always a common sight behind home plate at Astros games.
Now they are both gone, but as exemplars for their fellow Houstonians and their fellow Texans, George and Barbara Bush still serve.
The nation will discuss and debate the Bush presidency. Books will explore its achievements and its failures. That's not only right and proper, but useful in a nation that presumes to govern itself.
Just as useful are Bush memorials in our midst. A great international airport, a statue near the Arts District, a dynamic literacy program — perhaps a little red Studebaker, circa 1947 — are reminders that we too have opportunities to serve, wherever we happen to be, whatever our status in life. Our fellow Texan, the good and decent man we lost a few days ago, has shown us the way.