HOUSTON — Former President George H.W. Bush was a charter member of the Greatest Generation whose contributions to America are "etched in the marble of time," former Secretary of State James Baker told a somber crowd of more than 1,000 mourners Thursday.
"He possessed the classic virtues of our civilization and of his faith," said Baker, a longtime friend who served during Bush's administration. Baker broke down into tears as he concluded, and many took his cue as the funeral rolled on.
The service for Bush, who died Friday at age 94, was held at his beloved St. Martin’s Episcopal Church. It kicked off with renditions of "America the Beautiful" and "The Star-Spangled Banner," and granddaughters of the former president provided readings from Scripture.
George P. Bush, a grandchild and Texas land commissioner, told stories of the man they knew as "gampy" playing horseshoes and challenging the grandkids to games – and sometimes offering a "first-to-sleep" award.
The Rev. Russell Levenson Jr., in his homily, noted that George and Barbara Bush, who died in April, were "devoted members" of the church for more than 50 years. He related stories of the elder Bush serving coffee to churchgoers and teaching Sunday school.
"His very first act after being sworn into office as our 41st president was to lead us in prayer," Levenson said. He then shared the same prayer Bush spoke that day in 1989.
Bush was a big fan of the the Oak Ridge Boys, and the group sang "Amazing Grace."
"He fancied himself to be a good bass singer," band member Joe Bonsall commented with a smile. "He was not."
Bush grandsons served as pallbearers after the service, walking the flag-draped casket to a group of service members who placed it in a hearse for transport to the Union Pacific Railroad's Presidential Train Car. The train will traveling through Texas cities such as Spring, Magnolia and Navasota to College Station and the campus of Texas A&M University.
Bush's final resting place will be on the grounds of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum alongside his wife and their daughter, Pauline Robinson Bush, who died from leukemia short of her 4th birthday.
In the hours before the service, more than 10,000 mourners paid their respects after Bush's remains arrived at the church Wednesday from Washington. The service at Washington National Cathedral drew President Donald Trump and all the living former presidents – Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
The Houston funeral drew luminaries and the ordinary. The Bush children walked in single file to their seats, former President George W. Bush at the end of the line, pausing to greet guests. Reba McEntire was there. So was Fawaz “Fuzzy” Hajjar, who said he served pizza to the Bushes for 25 years at Fuzzy’s Pizza & Café in West Houston.
Bush was a frequent diner at the cafe and often brought VIPs to the small, family-run establishment, from former presidential candidate Mitt Romney to the owners of the Houston Astros and Houston Texans pro sports teams. Hajjar, in turn, named a pizza after him – the “President Bush Pizza” – that comes covered in pepperoni, Canadian bacon, green peppers, onions, black olives, Italian sausage and artichoke hearts.
“He’s like for us my friend, my father, my brother. He’s everything for us,” Hajjar, a native of Syria, said before the service. “He’s just an amazing man.”
Bill White, the mayor of Houston from 2004 to 2010, called Bush a “proud Houstonian and civic leader.” Bush was a fixture at civic and sporting events in his post-presidential years, White said.
But the memory that stands out came when the Democrat ran for mayor.
“He told me he was voting for me because I was good for the city,” said White, who worked for the Clinton campaign in 1992. “He didn’t hold grudges.”
John De La Garza Jr., who worked on Bush’s congressional staff in 1966 and 1967, wore a red tie decorated with military-style bombers and Mr. Rogers socks in honor of the former president. De la Garza's wife, Dorothy, said Bush and wife Barbara were like parents and served as a “model couple” to the then-newlyweds.
They comforted Dorothy after she had a stillbirth. "They showed us how to live and how to die," she said.
Karen Liedtke, 70, and her sister Kristy Liedtke, 67, said their parents were good friends and business partners with the Bushes.
“All those years of friendship, you want to be able to say goodbye,” Karen Liedtke said. “He was the greatest of the greatest generation.”
St. Martin's, founded in 1952, is now the largest Episcopal church in North America with some 9,000 members. It was also the site of Barbara Bush's funeral. The church towers overs Houston's upscale Tanglewood neighborhood west of downtown.
A message on the website of the 66-year-old church reads: "President George H.W. Bush and the late Mrs. Barbara Pierce Bush worshiped at St. Martin’s for more than 50 years, and now it is our turn to show our respect and support as our congregation, as well as our nation, grieve this loss."
Bacon reported from McLean, Va. Contributing: Susan Page and John C. Moritz