Tracy Olson was just finishing his studies at ASU as he transitioned from a job in construction to a career in education when Barbara Bush reigned as the nation’s first lady.
On April 18, he delivered a tribute to Bush over the PA system to the 560 students at Barbara Bush Elementary School, where he has been principal for eight years at the only school named in her honor outside Texas. Bush died April 17 at age 92.
“She was a wonderful proponent of child literacy, and we look forward to carrying on her legacy,” said Olson, a product of its school system and a member of the last graduating class of the old Mesa High School in 1972 before it was moved.
The school, which opened as the city’s 59th elementary school in 1996, was dedicated to Bush after then-board member Marilyn Wilson Thiel proposed the special honor.
“The reasons for this are many, but chief among them is the fact that Mrs. Bush has been an enthusiastic, tireless advocate for families, literacy and education,” Wilson told the board – which unanimously approved her motion.
Bush visited the school for its dedication on November 1, 1996, when she was a 71-year-old mother of four and grandmother of 13.
“This new experience of having people want to name things after us is really quite flattering until you realize they usually do it for people who are very, very old or dead,” quipped the woman who saw her husband and a son become U.S. president.
“But in all seriousness, it means a great deal to me that this new elementary school will be named for me because literacy and education in general is my No. 1 cause,” Bush added.
Indeed, her then personal aide, Quincy Hicks, told the Nearby News’ sister paper, East Valley Tribune, in 1995, “I know she is really flattered and very honored. She loves the fact that someone is choosing to name (a school) after her because she is such a literacy advocate.”
Bush traveled extensively across the country to promote literacy as well as extend the work of her foundation, which awarded millions of dollars in grants to scores of family literacy programs.
At the 1996 dedication, she read the story Amazing Grace, about a young girl who found she could be anything she wanted to be as long as she believed in herself.
“If you put your mind to it, you can be anything you want,” Bush told the audience. “You might be the president of the United States. You might be the husband of the president of the United States.”
After the dedication ceremony, Bush attended a second ceremony at Mesa Public Library to honor a teacher chosen as the 1996 Family Literacy Teacher of the Year.
There, she read a preschool story, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, in English, halting briefly after each sentence so it could be repeated in Spanish for the bilingual audience.
Bush returned to Bush Elementary several times after that, including in January 2000 when her son was the frontrunner in the GOP presidential primary campaign.
She entertained a crowd of nearly 600 parents and children and encouraged them to “turn off the TV once in a while” and read.
“No matter what you want to be,” she advised them, “you have to know how to read.” She then sat down and read a story to them about a boy who helped a woman regain her lost memories.
On April 18, the school had a moment of silence in honor of Bush and teachers spent a little time telling their classes about her.
In addition, each class made a special scrapbook-like page that was bound and sent to the Bush family.
Wilson also, on April 18, reflected on Bush, saying she’s glad she had come up with the idea to name a school in Mesa after her.
Ironically, a subsequent school board named another elementary school after Wilson. It wanted to pay tribute to the onetime Iowa teacher’s extensive involvement in numerous civic and charitable organizations in Mesa that included 16 years on the school board.
Wilson said she met Bush only briefly during the dedication, recalling, “She was very gracious with her time but she was on a very tight schedule so I didn’t have any chance to talk with her one-on-one.”
But Wilson said she will always remember her visit the day of the school’s dedication, noting, “She left a legacy of the importance of literacy, family and learning to read and those were values the people of Mesa hold close to them.”