By Alison Cupp Relyea, Rye Historical Society
“Some people give time, some money, some their skills and connections, some literally give their life’s blood. But everyone has something to give.” – Barbara Bush
As we honor the contributions of women in Rye, women who built organizations and made lasting contributions to the community, we would like to highlight the work of a well-known woman with deep roots in Rye. Barbara Pierce Bush’s legacy goes beyond the borders of Rye into classrooms and libraries throughout the nation. With Women’s History Month just concluded and Poetry Month just beginning, it is fitting that we recognize the “First Lady of Literacy,” Barbara Bush.
As First Lady, Barbara Bush had the vision and opportunity to create lasting change. She led a literacy campaign that created access to learning and funding for reading programs, focusing on impoverished areas with low literacy rates. Bush championed legislation to improve literacy, believing that when a child learns to read early in life, it is the key to future opportunities and an essential piece of a stronger society. Beyond her work in literacy, she was also a leader in her daily interactions, showing generosity and warmth to those she met through her work and throughout her life.
“Never lose sight of the fact that the most important yardstick of your success will be how you treat other people – your family, friends, and coworkers, and even strangers you meet along the way.” – Barbara Bush
In talking with her niece, Rye resident Peggy Pierce Peters, it is clear that Barbara Bush’s continued commitment to family and philanthropy grew out of her early family life in Rye, one rooted in service. Peters refers to her as “Aunt Bar” and tells stories of her aunt’s and her father’s happy childhood in Indian Village. They walked everywhere in town with their friends and siblings (except during floods, when they rode a telephone pole down Mendota Avenue!). Barbara was a student at Milton School before going to Ashley Hall and meeting George Bush as a teenager. She and George Bush were married in 1945, after he returned from serving as a Navy pilot in World War II. Barbara was 19 years old, and not long after their wedding she and her husband drove off to West Texas to start their life together.
Barbara Bush brought her optimism and love of family to everything she did, demonstrating resilience and turning challenges and even moments of grief into growth. Barbara’s mother, Pauline Pierce, died tragically in a car accident in 1949. Pauline had modeled community activism and philanthropy for her children by leading the Rye Garden Club as Conservation Chair and President and taking leadership roles in the Garden Club of America. As Barbara began to raise her own family, she carried forward her mother’s commitment to conservation and gardening while discovering her own passions as a path to service.
Barbara and George had six children; four sons and two daughters, one of whom died at a young age from Leukemia. Despite her husband’s demanding travel schedule, Barbara spent much of her time with her children, and when one of her sons struggled to read due to dyslexia, she worked hard to get him the services and support he needed. In advocating for her son, Barbara learned how much literacy and access to literature can shape outcomes for students. She saw the differences among schools in Texas and how many children were falling behind because they did not get direct reading instruction at an early age. As wife of the Vice President and then President of the United States, Barbara Bush had a chance to work from the ground up and top down, going into schools and working with children and teachers while also starting foundations and initiatives to bring attention to her cause.
It made a difference. Children growing up during this time felt a connection to the work happening in the White House, and positive messages about reading from the mouth of the First Lady resonated in schools and libraries across the country. Here in Rye, the Rye Free Reading Room had a surprise visitor when she attended a celebration for the new wing of the library. Barbara spent many hours in this library as a child, and through her children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, her warm memories and continued support of our local library live on. On a national level, the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy continues to improve adult and family literacy with programs in every state.
“If more people could read, write, and comprehend, we could be much closer to solving so many of the other problems our country faces today.” – Barbara Bush
As Peters said of her Aunt Bar, “She had spunk as a First Lady.” Known as unassuming and honest with a good sense of humor, Barbara also had a deep level of compassion that is even more clear looking back at the work she did, both publicly and more quietly. She advocated for women’s rights, fought bias against members of the LGBTQ+ community, and spent time with AIDS victims and their families during the height of the pandemic.
”I firmly believe we cannot tolerate discrimination against any individuals or groups. It always brings with it pain and perpetuates hate and intolerance.” – Barbara Bush
Maybe all those years of reading helped Barbara Bush see the value in listening to people’s stories, or maybe it came from her generous spirit and love of family that she naturally extended this to others. Peggy Pierce Peters told a story of staying with her aunt and uncle some nights in New York City when she was working at her first job, and that they included her in everything from conversations in the kitchen to dinners with diplomats. “Aunt Bar was never too busy for family,” Peters recalled, noting how her aunt always welcomed her and her children with open arms. As the head of a large family and a leader in our country, Barbara Bush led by example.
“Your success as a family, our success as a nation, depends not on what happens inside the White House, but on what happens inside your house.” – Barbara Bush
There is something very special about knowing that the house where Barbara Piece Bush began her love of reading is right here in Rye, on Onondaga Street. Each year, as local children tally their minutes for the elementary school Read-a-Thons and carefully select their next book at the Rye Free Reading Room on the Village Green, they are building skills they will use throughout their lives. The children in Rye have dedicated teachers, librarians and families who help them discover the gift of reading. In learning about Barbara Bush, they also hear the story of a woman who dreamed of making a difference, discovering the cause that mattered most was one close to her heart and home.