Former President George H.W. Bush shakes hands with Columbus Air Force Base's Col. James L. Higham in this 1989 Dispatch file photo. Bush arrived at CAFB on Air Force One before speaking at a commencement address at Mississippi State University. Photo by: Dispatch file photo
President George H.W. Bush, left, tips his hat to the audience at a 1989 commencement address at Mississippi State University in this Dispatch file photo.
Photo by: Dispatch file photo
At right, Buth McKenzie of Bay Springs keeps an eye out for President George H.W. Bush while his daughter, Laurie, and wife, Beenie, read over the schedule of events for the former president's 1989 visit to Mississippi State University to give a commencement address in this Dispatch file photo. "We're not here for graduation. We are here to see Bush," Beenie said.
Photo by: Dispatch file photo
December 5, 2018 10:47:41 AM
The visit lasted only a few hours and was, by presidential standards, a no-frills affair. His contact with crowds was limited to waves and even some who shared the stage never got as far as shaking his hand. The event went through without a hitch, despite the drizzly weather.
Yet almost 30 years later, those who were there still remember the day George H.W. Bush, the nation's 41st president, arrived in the Golden Triangle to deliver the commencement address at Mississippi State on May 13, 1989.
"I don't remember the details of what he said, but he was very self-deprecating and the focus of his speech was on the graduates," recalled Dan Snowden, a 1987 Lee High graduate who was a sophomore at MSU that spring. "There wasn't the sort of 'look at me' air about it we see in our politics today. He was very gracious, which is how people are remembering him now."
Bush, 94, died Friday at his home in Houston. He will be buried Thursday on the grounds of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library, located on the grounds of Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, next to his wife, Barbara, who died in April, and their daughter, Robin, who died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953.
A short trip
Bush delivered five commencement addresses in 1989 after being sworn into office that January, two of them in Mississippi and both on the same day.
Bush arrived in Mississippi that morning, delivering the commencement address at Alcorn State in Lorman, before boarding Air Force One to Columbus Air Force Base. The presidential motorcade proceeded down Highway 45 from CAFB then west on Highway 82 to the MSU campus.
George Hazard, then a reporter with The Dispatch, was assigned to cover the president's arrival at CAFB, which came at 2:10 p.m.
There was no media availability, so Hazard's reporting consisted entirely of his observations from his spot behind a fence as the president made the few steps from Air Force One to the waiting limousine. The president paused only long enough to shake hands with CAFB Wing Commander Col. Jim Higham and a few other Air Force officials.
"There wasn't a big crowd there, as I remember," Hazard said. "I think it was closed to the public, so it was just Air Force personnel and their families.
"One thing that stuck with me was his cheerfulness," he added. "When he stepped off the plane, he gave this big enthusiastic wave to the people. I don't know why, but that stayed with me, just how good-natured he seemed to be."
In the weeks prior to his arrival, MSU and White House officials worked out plans for the event, which was held at Scott Field, the university's football stadium.
Ralph Null of Columbus, then a horticulture professor at MSU, supervised the floral arrangements that adorned the stage, which was located on the east side of the stadium.
For Null, who had helped decorate President Ronald Reagan's inaugural ball in 1985 and President Bush's inaugural ceremony in 1989, the decorations for the commencement were relatively modest.
"It was a graduation ceremony, so everything was maroon and white," Null said. "It was pretty modest, and one of the reasons for that is that the Secret Service had to have all these sight lines, so we were pretty limited."
Snowden was also part of the preparations.
"Back then I was a member of the College Republicans, which I attribute to the folly of my youth," he laughed. "Our group got to participate in some of the planning, working with the White House team on the arrangements.
"It was interesting to be a part of it, to see the logistics and planning that went into it," he added. "We all had to have background checks. I also remember vaguely seeing this Secret Service agent on the roof with his big gun."
A bipartisan friendship
Getting the president to deliver the commencement address was quite a coup for Mississippi State, something that probably would not have happened without the influence of Mississippi Congressman G.V. "Sonny" Montgomery, a MSU graduate who became a close friend of Bush.
Kyle Steward, now the executive director of external affairs at MSU, was on Montgomery's staff in 1989, and although he didn't make the trip to Starkville for the event, he remembers the relationship that paved the way for Bush's appearance.
"Sonny and President Bush became friends almost the minute they got to Washington," Steward said.
Both were World War II veterans who had been elected to Congress for the first time in 1966.
"Here was this Democrat from Mississippi and this Republican from Texas and somehow they became friends," Steward said. "They were so close the Bushes felt Sonny was part of the family. I'm absolutely sure that Sonny had a lot to do with the president accepting the invitation. They would do anything for each other."
Bush made a return visit to MSU in the fall of 2000, when MSU honored Montgomery during halftime of its game with Arkansas as a part of Military Appreciation Day.
"That was another example of how close they were, that the president would want to be here to honor Sonny," Steward said.
A break in the weather
In the days leading up to the commencement, contingency plans were put in place to move the event to Humphrey Coliseum in case of bad weather. But officials were reluctant to make the move because it would limit the crowd to the 11,000 or so seats available at the Coliseum.
Despite drizzle, the event went on as planned at Scott Field, where a crowd estimated at 20,000 filled most of the seating on the "home" side of Scott Field.
Roy Ruby, MSU vice president of student affairs at the time, shared the stage with the president, who stepped out of the limousine a few paces from the stage.
"I didn't even get to shake his hand," Ruby recalled. "Of course, student affairs didn't have much to do with the event, so I wasn't much involved."
Joseph Ammerman, a Starkville native and former Dispatch editor, was one of the roughly 2,000 MSU students who graduated that day.
In one respect, it wasn't a typical graduation ceremony. For starters, everyone attending the event had to be seated in the stadium an hour before the president's arrival at 2:30.
Then there was the security.
"What I remember most is that I had this pocket knife that belonged to my dad. It has about an inch-and-a-half blade, just a regular pocket knife," Ammerman said. "The security guard said I couldn't bring it in and I couldn't believe it. I said, 'What do you think I'm gonna do, jump up on the stage and whittle him to death?' The guy didn't laugh, didn't even smile. So I got out of line and when nobody was looking I stuck it in a bush and came back later and got it."
Despite the inconvenience, Ammerman said everyone took the extra security in stride.
"I don't remember people feeling put out," he said. "The president of the United States is giving your graduation speech. That's a pretty big deal. You have to expect a few inconveniences."
From his vantage point on the stage, Ruby recalled few details of the speech. What does stand out was the weather.
"You know it rained all morning, almost up to time the president got to the stage," Ruby said. "Then it stopped raining and didn't rain a drop for the whole graduation, which probably took a couple of hours. Almost as soon as it was over, it started raining again. It was almost like some kind of divine intervention."
Early evening departure
Another reporter covered the commencement address for The Dispatch, so Hazard's part of the coverage was confined to the president's arrival and departure from Columbus Air Force Base.
"After he landed, I just stuck around, had lunch at the officer's club and waited until he came back," Hazard said. "I could have left, but I knew that if something were to happen, everything would be coming back to the base. That would be where the story was."
That the trip went without incident was something Hazard did not have to be told. He could see it with his own eyes.
"I remember how relaxed the President's entourage was when he came back," Hazard said. "It was noticeably different than when they arrived. It's like, 'OK, everything is safe. Everything went the way it was supposed to.'"
Bush boarded Air Force One and it taxied down the runway at 6 p.m.
Hazard watched the plane until it became little more than small blinking lights against the darkening sky.
The only surprise of the day was the veteran reporter's reaction to watching Air Force One disappear on the horizon.
"I remember thinking as I watched the plane fly away, 'All I have to do is go back to The Dispatch and write my story. The man in that plane has the whole country to take care of,'" Hazard said. "It was impressive."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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