Florida

Barbara Bush is remembered in Florida, where she had personal ties

Barbara Bush, right, jokes with her son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, while introducing him at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire during his 2016 presidential campaign.
Barbara Bush, right, jokes with her son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, while introducing him at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire during his 2016 presidential campaign. AP

Barbara Bush's failing health prevented her from personally attending the annual Celebration of Reading in Bonita Springs sponsored by her literacy foundation. But she was there: She Skyped in on a Friday in February.

"She couldn't be there in person," Mark Kaplan recalled Wednesday. "But she stayed on the screen as the writers participated. It was somewhat intimidating because she was looming over the audience."

Kaplan, of Tampa, is chairman of the board of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which has promoted reading and many educational opportunities for the past three decades.

The foundation is headquartered in a two-story colonial-style home in Tallahassee, two blocks from the Governor's Mansion where Mrs. Bush's son Jeb lived for eight years as governor, from 1999 to 2007.

"One of the many nicknames she had was 'The Enforcer,'" Jeb Bush told CNN. "There were unwritten rules, and if you violated them, she would enforce the rules, and do it in a way that was pretty effective. I don't remember my Dad doing that."

Kaplan was Jeb Bush's last chief of staff, in 2005-06, and said he could tell where the governor got the trait of asking pointed questions.

"He would invariably ask the question you hoped he wouldn't ask as a staff member," Kaplan said. "And she would get to the point of the matter. She wouldn't let you dodge."

Sally Bradshaw, who served as chief of staff to Jeb Bush, remembers Mrs. Bush's sharp wit and her belief in public service.

"She is a true example of what public service should be all about," said Bradshaw, who worked in the 1988 campaign for "Bush 41" and later in the White House before she joined Jeb Bush's staff in Tallahassee. "She always looked for the best in people."

Bradshaw recalled a group of Virginia residents visiting the White House and realizing that Mrs. Bush knew a lot more about the audience than she did.

"I feel blessed to have known her," Bradshaw said. "A lot of elected leaders today can take a page out of Mrs. Bush's book."

Alan Levine, a health care executive who ran the Florida Medicaid program under Jeb Bush, also served on the board of the literacy foundation.

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Barbara Bush reads a book to kindergarten students in 1997 at the former Liberty City Charter School founded by her son Jeb and T. Willard Fair. MARICE COHN BAND Miami Herald file 1997

Levine recalled asking at a board meeting whether the foundation had any money invested in business enterprises in China.

"She looked over at me and smiled and gave me a wink," Levine said, "as if to say, 'Thanks for asking that.' She had a very comforting but firm presence. She never wanted to talk about herself. She would go out of her way to talk about you."

Levine added: "I'm heartbroken for President Bush 41. I know how much he adored her. I know there's a huge emptiness for him now, and I know they will be together again."

Here's yet another Florida connection to the former First Lady. Her funeral service on Saturday will be at St. Martin's Church in Houston, where church pastor Russell Levenson is a former rector of the Christ Episcopal Church in Pensacola.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized Kaplan's status with the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. He is the current chairman of the board.

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