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The expression Great American is used so often in daily life there’s a risk the true meaning of the words is forgotten or devalued. George H.W. Bush reminds us what it means to be a Great American.  

I grew up in Wayne, Michigan and met George Bush at a campaign event in Michigan in 1980 when he was a candidate for the Republican nomination for president. I was a student at Eastern Michigan University just getting started in Republican politics. I was inspired by Bush and later became a Bush delegate to the 1980 Republican National Convention.  

By mid-1985, as a result of hard work and a few lucky breaks, I became Vice President Bush’s personal aide, also known as the “body guy” — a role I held for five years. During that time I spent the better part of every day with the vice president (later president) traveling a million miles across the United States and around the world, keeping him on schedule, organizing his daily agenda and briefing him before every meeting, from summits to campaign stops, to ensure he was fully prepared. The position also involved less glamorous things like arranging for exercise bikes, ordering room service, making sure he packed the right clothes — even waking him up — when we traveled. 

In 1988, during vice president Bush’s campaign to become president, my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The vice president knew of the gravity of his illness and frequently asked how he was doing.  

In October 1988, near the end of the campaign, while on a stop in Dearborn — Bush quietly pulled me aside and urged me to drop off the campaign for a few days to go visit my father. “I’ll be fine,” he said, “don’t look back and regret not spending the time with your dad.”  

When my dad died just before Christmas, the vice president and Barbara Bush were among the first to reach out and offer their condolences. And in the years that followed George Bush celebrated the important milestones in my life — my wedding, the birth of my children, professional accomplishments — as one’s own father might.   

As I was leaving the post as his personal aide, the now-president sent me one of his famous self-typed letters, punctuated with crossed out typos. “If you ever need to talk about a problem,” he wrote, “If you ever need an outstretched hand. … If you ever feel like crying I hope you’ll remember Bar and I love you like a son. You are over there. For now we are over here; but there is no separation.”

I last visited the president in Maine this summer while he was in the hospital. He was holding fast to his daughter Doro’s hand, reminiscing about his beloved Barbara; he was clearly heart broken. But I could also tell he was comforted to be back in Kennebunkport, Maine, a place he visited almost every year of his life, and the home to his “Summer White House.” He called Walker’s Point, the small peninsula that juts out in the Atlantic where their home sits, his “anchor to windward.” It’s also the magnet for the more than two-dozen Bush children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

George Bush’s life of service to others and devotion to his family is now complete. His place in our lexicon as Great American secure. He, and all he embodied, will be missed.

Michigan native Tim McBride is senior vice president of Global Government Relations with United Technologies Corp. and a former Chrysler executive.

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