Laura: America's First Lady, First Mother

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Overview

Laura Bush has made an indelible impact on Americans-and the world-since she became First Lady. Not only did she win the hearts of the nation with her maternal advice ("Hug your children"), but her poise, warmth, and down-to-earth wisdom has kept her at the forefront of the nation.

Laura, a hardcover bestseller, is the first book that tells the complete story of our beloved First Lady. Author Antonia Felix conducted dozens of interviews-including with Jenna Welch, Laura's ...

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Overview

Laura Bush has made an indelible impact on Americans-and the world-since she became First Lady. Not only did she win the hearts of the nation with her maternal advice ("Hug your children"), but her poise, warmth, and down-to-earth wisdom has kept her at the forefront of the nation.

Laura, a hardcover bestseller, is the first book that tells the complete story of our beloved First Lady. Author Antonia Felix conducted dozens of interviews-including with Jenna Welch, Laura's mother-and has produced an insightful, compelling work that finally informs us of the major events in Laura's Bush's fascinating life.

Learn all about:

*The tragedy that marred her childhood
*The delights and difficulties of being America's First Lady
*The joys and challenges of raising twin daughters Jenna and Barbara
*Her twin passions: children and literacy
*Her reactions in times of national crisis

This must-read book reveals why Laura Bush is the perfect First Lady for these turbulent times, and how her commitment as America's First Mother promises even greater opportunities for America's children.

Antonia Felix is the author of the acclaimed Christine Todd Whitman, a biography of the New Jersey governor turned EPA chair. She calls both New York City and Kingsville, Texas her home.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A Texas journalist once remarked that Laura Bush wasn't exactly a hot media topic there were no skeletons in her closet. But a lack of scandal isn't the only reason there's no drama in Felix's (Christine Todd Whitman) warm and fuzzy biography of the First Lady. Readers won't find much new information, either. Felix isn't interested in analysis, criticism or original and unbiased reportage her star source (among the few she has interviewed) is Jenna Welch, Laura's mother as much as she is in painting a pretty, soft-focus picture of the woman whose "media appearances [post-Sept. 11] sent a warm, personal, and utterly sincere message to parents, teachers, and children throughout the country, helping them cope with pain that words cannot describe." In other words, Laura Bush, teacher, librarian, wife and mother of two; is now America's mom. Before that, she was a Girl Scout; she sang in the church choir; she was devoted to books and reading; and she experienced one tragedy a friend was killed when Laura drove through a stop sign. Though George W. lived in the same Texas town and later in the same apartment complex in Houston, they didn't meet until she was 30, in 1977, at a dinner party held by a mutual friend. While George was a rowdy partier, Laura was a quiet elementary school teacher who went to bed early on school nights. This glowing account of these events and Laura's subsequent journey to the White House is for readers who enjoy a story short on depth and long on feel-good tidbits. (Mar.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Gr 8 Up-No one would dispute the fact that the First Lady has been a calm, compassionate, source of strength for our nation since the events of September 11th. And that is where this book begins, with the routine events that began Mrs. Bush's day and the national tragedy that quickly ensued. Felix then moves on to a chronological account of her subject's life, from her childhood in Midland, TX, to her current position as "First Mother" to a stricken populace. Supplementary material includes her Cowboy Cookies recipe, other famous names from Midland, and an eight-page photo insert. The book, however, suffers from some serious flaws. The most flagrant, it seems, is a bias on the part of the author. Felix bestows on her a character that would have made Mother Teresa jealous. Not surprisingly, Bush's mother, Jenna Welch, was a significant source for the book, which the author dedicated to her. Another weakness is the apparent lack of editing. Entire speeches are included where excerpts would suffice. A whole chapter is devoted to George W. and another to all the minutiae of the Texas Book Festival and the subsequent National Book Festival. In addition, the writing often lapses into reliance on trite expressions, and citations for quotations are often missing. As it stands, this title reads like a very long testimonial.-Marilyn Heath, Belton-Honea Path High School, Honea Path, SC Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786244485
  • Publisher: Gale Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Edition description: Large Print
  • Pages: 317
  • Product dimensions: 5.74 (w) x 8.68 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Table of Contents

Prologue: First Lady: September 11, 2001
Chapter 1: The Girl from West Texas
Chapter 2: Laura Welch, Teacher and Librarian
Chapter 3: George W., Fighter Pilot and Oil Man
Chapter 4: Highway Honeymoon
Chapter 5: Family Life
Chapter 6: Texas' First Lady
Chapter 7: The Run for President
Chapter 8: America's First Reader
Chapter 9: America's First Lady
Chapter 10: The Lady in Red
Epilogue: First Mother: September 11, 2001
Laura Bush's Cowboy Cookies
More Famous Names from Laura Bush's Hometown
Sources
Suggested Web Sites
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First Chapter

Chapter 1

The Girl _from West Texas

“West Texas commands the respect of its inhabitants. If one thing could be said of those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around the place, it is that they don’t simply live on or off the land; they live with it—and thrive.”

—LAURA BUSH, FROM THE _FOREWORD TO WHATEVER _THE WIND DELIVERS





ON JANUARY 20, 2001, millions of Americans tuned in to television coverage of the Fifty-second Presidential Inaugural Ball. The new president, George W. Bush, was a familiar face as the recent two-term governor of Texas and son of a former president. But the woman dancing with him—striking with her short chestnut hair and sparkling blue eyes, and dressed in a red Chantilly lace evening gown—was a new face to most Americans.

Many wondered who this new First Lady was—and what impact she would have after the precedent set by Hillary Clinton, who had just won one of the most historic Senate races in history and was moving her office from the White House to Capitol Hill.

Now, as viewers watched the First Couple sweep across the dance floor, the questions arose: Does the new First Lady have her own political agenda? Has she, like Hillary Rodham Clinton, come to Washington as her husband’s political partner? What issues does she hope to work with in her new role? Where does Laura Bush come from—is hers a prominent New England family, like that of her husband and mother-in-law? Does she have a career?

And, finally, would she be able to bring a softer, gentler, more nurturing image to the position of First Lady?

Everyone has a distinctive persona that defines his or her public image, and the persona of a political wife is often carefully constructed. But beneath that exterior lies a personal history shaped by one’s parents, hometown, ambitions, loves, and decisions.

Laura Welch Bush was strongly shaped by her West Texas beginnings. To understand her, you have to know something about her father, Harold, and her mother, Jenna. You have to explore a little of the history of Midland, Texas, her hometown. And you have to recognize how all these influences shaped the girl who would one day have the second most powerful position in America: First Lady to the Forty-third President of the United States.

***

LAURA BUSH began life as a “fortunate daughter.” She was fortunate because she grew up in the early l950s in a comfortable Texas town where crime was nearly nonexistent and wholesome events such as the World Championship Rodeo Day were eagerly anticipated by young and old alike.

She was also fortunate to have a solid, affectionate mother and a father who loved to laugh. As a result, the Welch house was a popular haven for Laura and her friends. There was no need to escape to a mall, or to roam the streets looking for something to do. Everything Laura and her friends might have wanted was right here.

Harold Welch—ambitious and extroverted—was a lot like the man his daughter would marry. George W. Bush once described his father-in-law as “a gentle, decent man. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

As Harold pursued a successful career in home building, Jenna pitched in to help her husband, taking on the roles of accountant and bookkeeper. She insisted on working from home so she could properly care for young Laura, their first and only child, who was born on November 4, 1946.

From the beginning, Laura was a delightful addition to the family. “She was an easy baby,” recalled Jenna. “She never cried and she was hardly even sick.”1 The calm, contented personality that strikes everyone who meets Laura Bush was evident from babyhood, according to her mother, who added that her daughter was “just born a happy little kiddo.”2

Although Jenna and Harold Welch had wanted to raise a large family, unfortunately it was not meant to be. From early on, young Laura sensed that her parents wanted other children. She said, “I was very aware that that was one of the disappointments—that they didn’t have a lot of children.”3

***

JENNA WELCH had also been an only child, but her mother, Jessie, had come from a family of seven sisters. Jessie’s mother, Eva, had been widowed at an early age, but was fortunate to have started a successful dairy farm that kept her and her girls busy with daily chores. The girls fed and milked the cows, cleaned out the barn, bottled milk, loaded products onto the delivery wagon, and drove the horse-drawn wagon to customers within a wide radius of the farm.

In fact, one day, while delivering milk with one of her daughters, Eva spotted a mailman coming toward them from the opposite direction. She casually mentioned him to her daughter, Jessie Laura, and as they passed each other, the young pair turned towards each other. Jessie would eventually marry her postman, Harold Hawkins, and they would have a daughter, Jenna, who would also one day marry a Harold.

Jenna considered herself lucky to have found her Harold, a man whose laughter lit up a room. Laura observed her mother’s devotion to her husband and her family. But Jenna was a multi-faceted woman, and Laura once observed that her mother was a woman “of that generation who really wanted to please her husband, and cooked three meals a day. . . . But she also was very interested in a lot of things outside of her marriage. When we got our Girl Scout bird badges, she was the Girl Scout leader and she developed a great interest in bird-watching.”4

A love for nature came easily to Jenna. As she grew up, she had developed a passion for the wildflowers of West Texas. “My mother [Laura’s grandmother] grew up on a farm in Arkansas,” she recalls, “and we often talked about flowers and birds. She was sort of a self-taught naturalist, and I’m the same way.”

Her love for birds continued after moving to Midland, where she joined the Midland Naturalist Group. “We put out a wonderful monthly publication, the Phalarope, which reports on nature in the area. They named the newsletter after the phalarope, a water bird that swims around in a circle to stir up the water and make the fish come up. The female also runs off on little errands of her own and leaves the male to care for the young. The women in the group liken themselves to the phalarope—they stir things up in the nature-loving community and leave their husbands at home at times to go birding.”

Laura’s mother “stirred things up” as a naturalist, working to improve the environment, and years later, her daughter would display some of her mother’s “phalarope” qualities when, as First Lady, she would “stir up” the education system’s kettle to improve schooling for America’s children.

As she moved through her childhood, Laura found security and strength in the delights of daily life in Midland, the small Texas town that would soon become a thriving center for oil interests. In time, this phenomenon would not only affect her family, but it would create the setting for a meeting with the man who would one day become her husband.

***

OIL WAS TO be the bridge that would connect Laura’s past with her future. The presence of oil was, in fact, one reason why her father, Harold Welch, had chosen to settle in Texas in 1946 after completing a four-year stint with the Army. Harold had just returned to the United States from Germany, where he had spent his last days with the Army’s 555th Anti-Aircraft Battalion trying to survive a difficult winter. He and his mates had fought in the bitter cold by day, and slept in freezing, bombed-out houses at night. Memories of that bone-chilling cold and blinding snow would haunt Laura’s father for the rest of his life.

At last, with the surrender of Germany on January 2, 1946, Harold Welch gratefully went home to his wife, Jenna Louise Hawkins Welch, whom he had married during one of his leaves in 1944.

Now back in the United States, Harold discovered that the war years had been good to nearby Midland, Texas. Since early 1942, it had been the site of the Army Air Force Bombardier Training School, the largest military training facility in the world.

Between April 1942 and January 1945, more than 6,000 cadets had flown practice bombing runs over the West Texas desert. About half of those cadets had young wives and children, and neither the base nor the town of Midland had enough homes for them. Adding to the housing crunch was a new influx of oil companies that chose to set up shop in Midland because of its accessibility and central location in the oil basin.

Midland’s housing shortage was actually a boon for Harold Welch, whose father had been a builder in Lubbock, Texas. From his father, Harold had inherited the desire to create something from the ground up. He decided to use his spare time to learn more about the building business, while carrying a full time job as a district manager of five branches of the Universal CIT Credit Corp, an institution, explains his widow, Jenna, that financed automobile dealers.

Eventually he resigned from his job as a credit officer and went into building and developing full-time. He formed a business with another Midland builder, Lloyd Waynick, and their company enjoyed a significant portion of Midland’s residential expansion over the next twenty years, including the development of five major subdivisions encircling the growing city.

“Lloyd and Harold’s company, Waynick and Welch, built about 200 homes in Midland,” Jenna Welch proudly remembers. “The development on Humble Street, including the house where we lived when Laura was in high school, was a cotton field when they bought it.”

The house Harold built for his family on Humble Street was one of his most popular designs, a one-story three-bedroom with wood-beam cathedral ceilings, a den with a fireplace, and a large, airy kitchen. “In the 1970s those houses cost about $25,000,” said Jenna. “Later he built bigger, four-bedroom homes.”

Harold’s background in designing homes came from two sources: watching his father and using his imagination. “Harold just liked building,” recalls Jenna. “He would take a piece of paper and draw up a floor plan and then take it to a draftsman who would make a blueprint. His big four-bedroom plan was really wonderful, and he built a lot of those homes.”5

Midland’s rise to prominence in the oil world began in 1926, when Gulf Oil Company was the first of several big oil companies to move its operations there. In three years, West Texas’s first “skyscraper,” the twelve-story Petroleum Building, soared above the rest of Midland. The Permian Basin’s first oil boom ended with the Depression of the 1930s, when big oil discoveries in East Texas caused oil companies to pull out of Midland and head to the newest fields. But drilling resumed in the mid-1930s and throughout the Second World War, bringing the oil companies back into Midland and launching a huge period of growth for the town.

Then, between 1945 and 1950, a series of big oil strikes just south of Midland known as the Spraberry discovery brought more than 11,000 people into Midland. The oil boom of the 1940s had also attracted an ambitious young war hero from Connecticut.

George Herbert Walker Bush was also attracted to the promise of oil in the Southwest, and left Connecticut to find just the right location. He settled on Midland in 1950, where he became a salesman for an oil-drilling equipment company. Bush brought with him his wife, Barbara, their two-year-old son, George W., and their infant daughter, Robin.

The Bush family’s first home was in a neighborhood called Easter Egg Row. “Every brand-new, identical house was painted a different wild color and cost just under $8,000,” recalled Barbara Bush in her autobiography. “We loved that marvelous little home.”6

The Bushes had settled into the same part of town as the Welches, who, with their three-year-old daughter, Laura, lived about fifteen blocks south of Easter Egg Row on Estes Avenue. The two families were not yet destined to meet, however. They attended different churches—the Bushes went to First Presbyterian and the Welches to First Methodist—and did not yet know each other.

In 1950, the Welches entered Laura in a private kindergarten called Alyne Gray’s Jack and Jill. At the end of her first week, Laura impressed her mother (as well as herself) with her excellent memory. “She prided herself in the first week of school by learning the names of all the children in her class,” recalled Jenna Welch.

Remembering names was a skill Laura would use throughout her career as a teacher and librarian. “When she was school librarian,” continued her mother, “she had seven hundred kids in the school, and she tried to learn the names of as many as she could. As to the kindergarten children that came in every day that she read to, she learned their names right off.”7

When she was five years old, Laura took a ballet class at a popular Midland studio run by Georgia Harston. She also began swimming lessons at that age, joining a beginner’s class at Hogan Park in the northeast section of town. To top off an already active schedule, young Laura joined the cherub choir.

“They only sang in church once or twice a year, but they went every week for choir practice,” recalls Laura’s mother. “The children learned discipline as well as how to read music. Laura sang in the church choir until the eighth grade, and this training helped her when she got to college and studied the music courses that all education majors are required to take.”8

After first grade, Laura spent the rest of her school years in the Midland public school system. Like many American small towns in the 1950s, Midland was a place safe enough for young children to walk the streets by themselves. It also offered seasonal treats to its residents. In the summer, everyone went downtown to watch the parades on the Fourth of July, and during World Championship Rodeo days, cowboys and rodeo clowns from the annual spectacle made their way through the town to the cheers of enthusiastic onlookers.

Midland in the 1950s was the business center for oil companies in West Texas. Before the discovery of oil in the 1920s, the town had earned its place on the map as the midpoint along the Texas and Pacific Railroad that connected the cattle country in the West to the commercial centers in the East. Known as “Midway” in those days, the town lay equidistant between Fort Worth and El Paso, the railroad's beginning and end points.

Building a railroad across Texas—the first step in opening the land to prosperity through ranching and other industries—was only possible after the Native Americans had been driven from the Plains. In 1859, after the failure of the reservations and on the heels of encroaching white settlement, all Comanches were ordered out of Texas to Native American territory in the north, an area that is now Oklahoma. Laura Welch Bush’s mother, Jenna, was born about forty years later—the battle-scarred frontier history of West Texas a lingering memory to those of her generation.

The explosion of westward expansion after the discovery of gold in California and the elimination of the Native Americans fueled the need for a railroad through Texas, which, because of its mild winter climate, was one of the most popular routes for pioneer wagon trains. Midway was an important stop along the route of the Texas and Pacific Railroad.

The first permanent resident of Midway was a sheep farmer named Herman Garrett, who arrived with his herd in 1882. Two years later Midway was renamed “Midland” in order to obtain a post office, as the name Midway had already been used. Among other early sheep ranchers was John Scharbauer who would team up with his brothers to organize the Scharbauer Cattle Company at the turn of the century. Clarence Scharbauer built the Hotel Scharbauer in Midland in 1927, an enormous and luxurious hotel that served as the center of cattle and oil deal-making. More deals of this kind were made with handshakes in the Scharbauer lobby than anywhere else in the country. Sometimes a prized cow or two stood on display in the lobby, munching fresh hay and making quite an attraction. The hotel was eventually named a Texas landmark, but in 1973, nine years after Laura Welch graduated from high school, the Scharbauer was razed to make way for a fourteen-floor Hilton hotel.

The railroad made Midland one of the biggest cattle shipping towns in the state. Nearly 120 years later, when Laura Welch Bush stood with her husband on a platform in downtown Midland for a presidential victory party in January 2000, the train whistle that she had listened to several times a day while growing up cut through the din of the festivities. Like the wind and the dust, trains remain a constant in Midland, Texas.

Todd Houck, a historian and Director of Archives at Midland’s Petroleum Museum, remembers Midland as “the typical, Norman Rockwell kind of world. Everyone felt very safe. No one would dare bring a lighter into school, much less a gun.”

Laura was a typical Texas schoolgirl. Once a week, she would put on her Brownie Scouts uniform and wear it to James Bowie Elementary school. After the last bell, she would walk with a few of her friends to Mrs. Smith’s house for their troop meeting.

There, her Brownie Scout leaders, Mrs. Barrett and Mrs. Smith, taught the girls simple household skills interlaced with basic lessons in citizenship, as outlined in the Brownie Scouts Handbook. Like hundreds of thousands of other Brownies across the country, Laura and her troop began each meeting by reciting the Brownie Promise: I promise to do my best, to love God and my country, to help other people every day, especially those at home.

Recalls one of her fellow Scouts: “My mother and Gwyne Smith’s mom spent one afternoon each week trying to mold a lively group of seven-year-olds into domestic young ladies,” said Martha Barrett Schleicher. “Laura was one of my mom’s favorites because she listened quietly and followed directions well.”9

Another childhood friend, Sally Brady Rock, reminisced about her troop meetings with Laura. “I remember Brownie Scout meetings over at Gwyne Smith’s house,” she said, “and our little arts and crafts projects that we would do. She [Laura] was always so good. She always made things well. . . .”10

Laura not only was well behaved, but she learned from her mentors. From the tender age of seven, she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. Inspired by her second grade teacher, Mrs. Charlene Gnagy, she told her parents that she, too, wanted to be a teacher. Decades later she would invite her beloved second-grade instructor to her husband’s inauguration, and place her in the front row at the White House ceremony.

Young Laura loved “rehearsing” to become a teacher. In fact, her mother recalled one typical episode during Laura’s grade school days when she and a friend were playing school at her house. Each girl had set up a class in one of the bedrooms, but instead of attending to their students, they were standing in the hallway, talking.

Laura’s mother asked them why they were in the hall. “I thought you were teaching your classes,” she inquired of Laura and her friend.

With her usual spunk, Laura replied that she was, indeed playing teacher. “This is what our teachers do!”11

At the age of eight, Laura graduated to Girl Scouts and attended her first summer camp. It was almost 200 miles away from home in the Davis Mountains southwest of Midland—a beautiful valley nestled between two plateaus, with an unparalleled view of Mitre Peak. Coyotes, turkey buzzards, deer, wild turkeys, jackrabbits, and other animals live in the wilderness surrounding the camp.

But Laura wasn’t ready to leave home for so long. “She went for just a week,” said Laura’s mother. “Then she asked to come home. I think she was homesick. She wouldn’t go back for a year or two.”

Laura had forged a strong bond with her parents and friends, and found being apart from them very difficult. But when she was older, she returned to the camp, and this time, she truly enjoyed herself. She also spent summers camping at Bandera, 370 miles southeast of Midland, a ranching center in the Texas Hill Country known as the “Cowboy Capital of the World.”

“We had a great time in scouts,” said Laura’s mother, who was one of her Scout leaders. “We organized things to do around the community and took the girls on field trips.

“The summer between her junior and senior year in college,” said her mother, “Laura was a camp counselor at Camp Mystic in the Texas Hill Country Northwest of San Antonio. She had a good time—and earned a little money, too.”12

Camping with the Girl Scouts had given Laura an introduction to nature and outdoor adventure that became an essential part of her life. Later, as First Lady of Texas, one of her favorite getaways was taking white-water rafting trips with friends.

The summer temperatures in Midland can reach into the 100s, and Laura spent many days at the swimming pool with her friends. Afterwards, Laura would bring a friend or two home to visit or to spend the night. Laura’s house was a center of liveliness and good humor. Her friends felt right at home, thanks to her father’s quick wit and her mother’s warm welcome.

“You always loved to hang out at their house,” said one of Laura’s best friends, Jan Donnelly O’Neill. “You just always laughed and had a good time . . . sitting down and having Cokes with Laura and her mom and dad.”13

Laura fondly recalls her father’s sense of humor. “My daddy loved to laugh,” she said. “He loved animals. He was just one of those men who never met a dog he didn’t like or that didn’t like him. He was funny and didn’t take himself too seriously.”14

According to those who have known her most of her life, Laura inherited her father’s sense of humor. Her mother acknowledges that Laura has a unique sense of humor, but isn’t sure exactly where it came from.

“Are we born with a sense of humor or do we develop it?” she mused in an interview. “I’m not sure, but Laura has always had a subtle sense of humor. Her father was much the same way.”

On weekends the girls took turns staying over at each other’s houses, and sometimes a group would get together for a slumber party. Many Friday nights, Laura slept over at the home of her friend Gwyne Smith or Gwyne stayed over at the Welches’.

Laura’s friends knew that she had two great loves: reading and pets. One of her childhood friends, Judy Jones Ryan, gave Laura her first kitten when they were little girls. “I remember he had a real pug nose, kind of flat, and she would always push on his nose. It was a tabby, and she loved it. . . .”

Laura’s dog, a mixed-breed named Marty, became Laura’s constant companion. Another friend recalled finding Laura in the back yard one summer day, ridding Marty of his wood ticks without being the least bit grossed out.

“She was picking off ticks and putting them in a solution very methodically,” said Peggy Porter Weiss. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I would never do this, and if someone forced me to do this, I would complain the whole time.’”

Laura looked up and told her squeamish friend, “It’s not so bad!”15

After spending her first school years at North Elementary and Bowie Elementary, Laura entered San Jacinto Junior High. Friends recalled that Laura went out of her way to make sure that the kids who transferred from one of the smaller parochial elementary schools were accepted by the students who had spent all their elementary years together.

“I was rather intimidated by all of the others in school,” said Cindy Schumann Klatt, who had spent her first eight years of school at neighboring St. Ann’s. “My first memory of Laura is how friendly and concerned she was that those of us from St. Ann’s were included in activities around school.”

Another new friend in junior high, Karen Thompson Trout, described Laura as “a very, very sweet girl. She always was a friend to everybody.”16

***

WHEN LAURA started high school in 1961, she was in the first 10th grade class to attend the area’s new Robert E. Lee High School. Always the literary type, she worked on the yearbook and signed up for honors classes.

But Laura Welch enjoyed an active social life, too. She always seemed to have a date for the post-game victory dances, which the school held whether or not their home team, the Rebels, had won.

And the place to go post-game, or any time the teens felt the urge to hang out with their crowd, was Agnes’s drive-in. Recalled Laura’s longtime friend Jan Donnelly O’Neill, who has known her for forty years: “We could drive at fourteen at that point, so you know, you would take the family car and go and get a Coke and kind of hang out at the ’50s-style drive-ins.”17

“There were at least five girls in the car every time we went out,” added Peggy Weiss, another of Laura’s lifelong friends. “We liked Kent cigarettes and would be down on the floor in the back of the car, smoking. We all stopped smoking eventually.”18

Laura has often expressed her appreciation for the innocent, cozy lifestyle she enjoyed in Midland. “I was lucky to have a very normal childhood in a small town where people felt free to do whatever [they] wanted to do. We were sheltered in this freedom in a way that maybe we didn’t understand.”19

Between her sophomore and junior years, Laura and a group of friends from Lee High took a trip to Monterrey, Mexico. They spent the summer taking a Spanish language and cultural studies course. Monterrey, about 145 miles south of the Texas border, is the third largest city in Mexico and, with many English-speaking residents and American stores is more like a Southwest American city than any other city in Mexico.

The rugged beauty of the Sierra Madre mountains formed the backdrop for Laura and her friends’ casual strolls and tours of Monterrey’s seventeenth and eighteenth century architecture. They took classes during the day and, back in their dorm rooms, devised their own Spanish vocabulary lessons: listening to pop songs on the radio and trying to make out the words.

Even though they lived in the same town, Laura and George W. Bush did not meet while they were growing up. President Bush told one journalist that he was certain they had met in the seventh grade—the one year they both attended the same school, San Jacinto Junior High—but Laura, with her impeccable memory, does not recall ever having met him at that time.

During her high school years, however, Laura did take part in a YMCA program that indirectly connected her to the Bush family. She participated in Tri-Hi-Y, a leadership and character-building organization for high school women. Coincidentally, in 1953, George H. Bush was one of the founders of the Midland YMCA. Now, his contribution to the youth of Midland was already enhancing the life of his future daughter-in-law.

Tri-Hi-Y is the girls’ offshoot of Hi-Y, a YMCA organization for high school–age boys created in 1889. The first Tri-Hi-Y was launched by girls in Holyoke, Massachusetts in 1924.

“The mission of this youth program is to invite young women to take a look at their communities and find out what they can do to make them a better place,” said David King, Executive Director of the Hi-Y Leadership Center in St. George, West Virginia. “They learn how to assess their skills to use what they have to make a difference where they are. The focus is on leadership, personal character, responsibility, and providing service to the community. From the beginning, the philosophy of Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y held that a leader is not necessarily someone who stands out in front and gives great speeches. A civic leader is also the person who is on the bottom helping lift up instead of on the top giving orders.”20

That philosophy clearly resonates with Laura Welch Bush’s style of public service. (Later, she would tell her fiancé, George, that she preferred working quietly behind the scenes.) Never did she run for political office in school or in college. She did, however, focus on learning how to “lift” her children up, one at a time, as their teacher.

Other prominent national figures who took part in Hi-Y have been Ronald Reagan, who was vice president of his Hi-Y at Dixon High School in Dixon, Illinois, and John Glenn, who was a member of Hi-Y as a student at New Concord High School in Ohio.

Midland’s Lee High was ushering in new academic challenges for its students in the 1960s, and in Laura’s senior year she took a new honors class, History of Western Thought. It was an advanced course that gave Laura a head start when she started college at Southern Methodist University. Her mother recalled that the honors class “had an extensive reading list, but it really helped her when she got to college the next year.”21

Academics, Tri-Hi-Y, reading, and her involvement in the First Methodist Church were Laura’s major occupations in high school, but she was hardly a bookworm. A well-rounded student, she enjoyed swimming and hiking, and looked forward to those opportunities when she could simply be outdoors.

One year, she took part in an event that gave her and other young ladies of Lee High School an excuse to rough it up on the football field—they participated in a powder puff football game against the rival Midland High School. Also known as “women’s flag football” among today’s serious players, the game involved role reversals for the students, with the girls donning soccer-like uniforms and the boys dressing in cheerleader outfits.

Laura’s high school years, filled with friendship and a close, loving relationship with her parents, did bring one serious setback—a tragic accident in her senior year. Shortly after 8 P.M. on November 6, 1963—two days after her seventeenth birthday—Laura came to an intersection while driving her Chevrolet sedan on the outskirts of town. Her friend, Judy Dykes, was in the passenger seat. Laura went through the stop sign and hit another car, a Corvair sedan that she would later learn was driven by her close friend, Michael Douglas.

Seventeen-year-old Michael was thrown from his car and killed, and a shaken Laura and Judy were taken to the hospital, where they were treated for minor injuries. The police report stated that neither driver was drinking, and no charges were filed in the case.

“Nobody here held it against her,” said a Midland friend, Robert McCleskey.22 But a grief-stricken Laura stayed home from school for a week after the accident, and the entire town reeled as a result of this terrible accident.

“It was as if two of Midland’s favorites had been involved in an unthinkable act of fate,” said Midland resident Jack Hickman in a television biography about Laura. “He [her father] would have taken that hurt for her if he could.”23

The story was publicized by the national press in January 2000, when George W. was campaigning as a presidential nominee for the Republican party. Although clearly painful for Laura to recall, she confronted the accident—and her part in it—in interview after interview.



I grieved a lot. It was a horrible, horrible tragedy. It’s a terrible feeling to be responsible for an accident. And it was horrible for all of us to lose him, especially since he was so young. But at some point I had to accept that death is a part of life, and as tragic as losing Mike was, there was nothing anyone could do to change that. . . . It was a comeuppance. At that age, you think you’re immortal, invincible. You never expect to lose anybody you love when you’re so young. For all of us, it was a shock. It was a sign of the preciousness of life and how fleeting it can be.24



Harold and Jenna Welch could not take away Laura’s pain, but the close relationship they had with their daughter helped her heal over time. They were a solid, down-to-earth family, and the accident summoned up in Laura the strength to go on—a strength that would be called upon again, in future years, during other personal strains and setbacks.

v v v

HAROLD WELCH died at the age of eighty-two on April 29, 1995, from Alzheimer’s disease, just months after seeing his daughter become First Lady of Texas. His funeral was held two days later at the First United Methodist Church and he was buried at Resthaven Memorial Park, a cemetery in the northeast corner of Midland.

Since Harold’s death, Jenna has lived in their home on Humble Avenue and continues to visit friends and go about her usual routine. She drives down to the corner of Main and Ohio every Sunday to attend services at First United Methodist where she taught Sunday school for many years; travels to Washington or the ranch in Crawford, Texas, to visit the Bushes from time to time; and drives to visit friends in the Midland-Odessa area and in her hometown of El Paso.

Like her daughter, Jenna Welch is low-key and unassuming. Her friend, Todd Houck, recalled leaving a meeting with her one evening.

“I helped her over to her car,” he said, “and she opened the passenger door and, to my surprise, stretched across and opened the driver’s door from the inside.

“‘Well, my door’s broken,’ she told me with a laugh. I don’t know if she’s fixed it yet or not. This tells me something about her being unpretentious; you would think she’s got people waiting on her hand and foot, but she doesn’t. Maybe she doesn’t want it. She’s pretty independent.”25

When Laura returned to Midland for her father’s funeral, she once again was brought back to the church in which she had spent much of her youth. She had been baptized at First United Methodist and sang in the children’s choir.

She had also attended Sunday school in the education wing.

She had been married in this church, and rejoined the congregation with her own family until she and George moved from Midland in 1981. Now, she was honoring the man who had helped her grow up safe and strong, in a world of sweetness and innocence that would forever linger as a warm, reassuring memory.

Midland has come to represent “hometown” for both Laura and George. Although Laura had a three-year head start over George when it came to growing up there, they have nine childhood years in common that shaped their perspective of the world. In Midland, they shared an upbringing by parents who found strength in the church, another factor that caused each of them to develop the strong faith that they share today.

“I was lucky to have loving parents who made me feel secure,” Laura told Oprah in an interview for her magazine in May 2001, “and that has certainly been a huge advantage. I also have faith in God. I truly think life is a gift, and everything in the world is a gift to all of us.”26

George shared his feelings about his hometown in a letter to the Midland County Historical Society upon the publication of their book, Historic Midland, in 1998: “To me, Midland means friends and family. There is no better place to have grown up. . . . I remember neighbors worrying about neighbors. I remember Church and backyard barbecues. . . . My roots are there, my friends are there, and many of my beliefs are rooted in the philosophy that embodies Midland.”27

Laura has expressed her love and respect for her West Texas home turf in many ways, including a written piece that is beloved by Texans. All of the reading she has done throughout her life has impacted upon her writing, as evidenced in a lyrical piece she wrote for a book containing photographs and poetry of West Texas.

In her foreword to Whatever the Wind Delivers: Celebrating West Texas and the Near Southwest, she describes the region with a nature writer’s grace:



To survive, every day is a negotiation, an agreement, an acceptance of terms that the soil and the sky outline without the slightest bit of consideration. And yet, even at its worst—at its dustiest, hottest, and driest—the region is rich with anticipation and hope for a merciful change. And it does change.

Just when a man resigns his fields to a dry season, precious rain bursts from a cloud, calming the dust about his boots, washing the red dirt off the windows of his pickup and summoning birds to bathe and drink.

This is the paradox of West Texas and the mighty Southwest. It is at once dull and unpredictable; subtle and grand.28

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2005

    Way to go, Laura!

    This is a very interesting and informative book. I would recommend this to anyone who wants a quick read about our first lady. Of course we all know how much Laura cares about the people of our country and what she has done to help it, but did you know that when driving through a stop sign at seventeen years old, she ended up crashing into her friend's sedan and killing the driver? Did you know that she and George W. met at a barbeque?! Some people may say that this book holds no new info. but I know better. Pick up this book today! You won't be disappointed. I would also like to say that Laura Bush is my hero and it would be wonderful to meet her someday. =]

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2004

    R U MY MOTHER?

    No, no such luck, but I wish you were, dear First Lady; unlike your own twin daughers I feel I'd spend the rest o' my life trying to please you.

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