HOUSTON — Former President George H.W. Bush surprisingly greeted some of the hundreds of mourners filing through a large Houston church on Friday as they paid final respects to his wife of 73 years, former first lady Barbara Bush.
A spray of dozens of pink and yellow roses covered her closed, light-colored metallic casket in the sanctuary of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. The 93-year-old former president sat in a wheelchair just a few feet from the casket, smiling as people shook his outstretched hand and offered condolences.
Barbara Bush died Tuesday at age 92 at the couple’s Houston home, where her husband was also by her side. Many women attending the daylong viewing wore blue, Barbara Bush’s favorite color, and pearls, a nod to her go-to jewelry.
The nation’s 41st president hadn’t been scheduled to attend but decided to go after watching video from the church, where about 1,600 people had passed through in the first hour. He stayed for about 15 minutes.
“I think he was very touched by all of the people who were taking the time out of their lives,” family spokesman Jim McGrath said.
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Visitors went through security checks before boarding shuttle buses to travel a few miles to the nation’s largest Episcopal church. Lucy Orlando was among more than 100 people in line well before bus service began, after traveling from Florida. Originally from Haiti, the 74-year-old said had admired Barbara Bush for years, including for her work promoting literacy.
“She was a very sweet lady and she loves people,” said Orlando, who was carrying a gray suitcase containing framed photos of the couple and members of their family, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura.
Varney Johnson, 49, a social worker originally from Liberia, said he also came to honor the former first lady’s work in supporting literacy efforts, saying: “This woman dedicated her life to educating children.”
“I believe that Barbara Bush is a mother and a grandmother to every American,” added Jamie Sumicek, 52, of Houston. “Whether you’re Democrat or whether you’re Republican, whether you’re young or old, she is the matriarch of America. That’s what moved me to visit.”
A hearse containing the former first lady’s casket arrived before daybreak at the church. Her body was to be in repose until midnight. Among the officials allowed in earlier were the Senate’s majority whip, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson.
The invitation-only funeral will be held Saturday behind her husband’s presidential library at Texas A&M University, about 100 miles northwest of Houston. The burial site is in a gated plot surrounded by trees and near a creek where the couple’s 3-year-old daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia in 1953, is buried.
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In a statement released Friday, the family said Barbara Bush had selected son Jeb to deliver a eulogy along with her longtime friend Susan Baker, wife of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, and historian Jon Meacham, who wrote a 2015 biography of her husband.
About 1,500 guests were expected to attend, including first lady Melania Trump, former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, and former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.