CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Laura Bush spoke with grace and gentle humor Wednesday about her family and years in the White House during an address at the University of Northern Iowa.
The former first lady of the United States also talked about her time in public education, working as a librarian and the importance of reading.
"I believe that every child deserves a quality education and a safe and happy childhood," said Bush. Literacy, she added, is an essential foundation of democracy. "I know if every child is educated, our world will be more stable and prosperous."
Bush was speaking to a full house in the Great Hall of the Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center as part of the Joy Cole Corning Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series. Among the dignitaries in attendance were Iowa U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds.
This was the first lecture in the series since Corning, a former lieutenant governor and state senator who graduated from UNI, died in May 2017.
"I thought before we got started I'd update you on my family," she said early in her speech. Bush spoke about her husband, former President George W. Bush, children Jenna and Barbara, and her three young grandchildren. She talked about her mother, Jenna Welch, who died in May at age 99, and her in-laws, George H.W. and Barbara Bush, who died last year.
"George and I believe his parents showed how to age with grace," said Bush, noting how they have a habit of taking walks on the beach inspired by her mother-in-law. She quoted Barbara Bush as telling them to "enjoy what you have now to the fullest."
Since leaving the White House in 2009 and making a home in Texas, Bush said they have settled into "what I call the 'afterlife' in the state that George calls 'the Promised Land.'"
Bush spoke of their joy in having grandchildren, including the grandparent names their daughters think they should be called by.
"It's sort of like choosing a name for a cat," she said. "George just wants the babies to call him 'sir.'"
Her focus turned to deeply rooted concerns connected to the children she encountered in public school systems and the eight years that her husband was president.
"When I graduated from college I applied to schools in the inner city," said Bush. "But I wasn't prepared for the poverty I saw."
She recalled taking a few favorite students to an amusement park before leaving that first school to earn a graduate degree. As she went to pick up one boy at his home, he came to the door in his underwear. Bush heard his mother in the background but she never came to the door. So, the child wasn't able to join her and the other children at the park.
"Helping children like this little boy is one of the greatest challenges we face," she said, citing risks factors from single-parent homes to drugs and violence. "1.2 million people drop out high school every year. Young people need us in their lives, they need to know that they're valued."
She challenged the audience "to never forget that boy" by offering a smile and a friendly touch to a child or volunteering an hour of time to help at a school. "These are the things that can make all the difference in the world."
Bush recalled one of the most difficult times in recent U.S. history, Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorist hijacked three airliners and crashed them into New York City's World Trade Center, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania.
"I was on Capitol Hill, preparing to give a briefing," she said, to a congressional committee. "George and I cried with the grieving families" and prayed with them. "We will never forget it for as long as we live."
Bush said she met numerous world leaders during her husband's tenure as president. But "the most inspiring people we met in those two terms" were first responders in the terrorist attacks, the military personnel who went to fight perpetrators of the attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq, and volunteers who helped out after Hurricane Katrina.
"What all these people have in common is a commitment to serve," she said.
Bush also sat for a question-and-answer session with UNI President Mark Nook after her 25-minute speech. Among other things, she discussed her advocacy for the women of Afghanistan while first lady and today in her role with the Woman's Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute. "I think American women, especially, felt sisterhood with our Afghan sisters," she said.
As Bush referenced her ongoing connections to the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, and his wife, Rula, she tentatively dipped her toe into geopolitics -- particularly the ongoing involvement of the U.S. military in the troubled region invaded after the 9/11 attacks.
"They hope, the Ghani's do, that we keep a military presence there," she said, noting other countries around the world have hosted American troops for even longer periods.