National News

‘We’ve Lost Both of Them’: Maine Town Grapples With Loss of George and Barbara Bush

Posted December 1, 2018 5:47 p.m. EST

He was a regular sight around the New England town he helped put on the map, whether he was skittering down the coast in his speedboat at full throttle or celebrating his 90th birthday by tumbling out of a helicopter 6,300 feet above his house.

That town, Kennebunkport, Maine, lowered its flags to half-staff Saturday to honor the death of its most famous summer resident, former President George H.W. Bush.

As the seaside town buzzed with visitors drawn to its annual Christmas festivities, local residents grappled with what the loss of Bush would mean. Flowers and other mementos were left at a spot overlooking the Bush family compound, known as Walker’s Point, where Bush spent summers throughout his life.

“We’ve lost both of them in one year,” Tom Bradbury, executive director of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust, said of Bush and his wife, Barbara, who died in April.

“Part of the experience of coming to town would be to go by their house or look for a Bush sighting, whether he was passing by on his boat or going to a local place to eat,” Bradbury said. He added that Kennebunkport residents had become almost inured to having a front seat to history during Bush’s presidency, when Walker’s Point was known as the “summer White House” and hosted world leaders from Margaret Thatcher to Mikhail Gorbachev.

“They were woven into the fabric of the town,” Bradbury said of the Bushes. “To not have them here is a void.”

In recent years, Bush and his wife spent roughly May to October at Walker’s Point, which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, and was developed by Bush’s mother’s family more than a century ago. The rest of the year they lived in Houston, where Bush died at his home Friday.

The Bushes made many close friends in Kennebunkport over the years, who were emailing and calling one another Saturday to trade memories and share their sadness.

Bonnie Clement, one of the owners of H.B. Provisions, a general store in town, was one. The Bushes served as witnesses for her marriage to her wife, Helen Thorgalsen, in 2013. Clement said customers coming in on Saturday had expressed their condolences to her, knowing the Bushes were her good friends.

“There’s not enough adjectives to describe this man and this family,” Clement said. “He sort of would talk about the epitome of what family should be — it’s ‘family first.’ He doesn’t say it as a cliché. He’s probably the guy that defined it.”

Ken Raynor, who has been the golf professional at the Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport since 1979, played hundreds of rounds of golf with Bush, and went on salmon fishing trips with him in remote parts of Canada. Raynor said he had learned of Bush’s death when he woke up Saturday morning in Florida, where he works over the winter.

“I always looked at him as a second dad,” Raynor said.

He said he had spent time with Bush in October, the day before the former president left for Texas.

“I kind of got to say my goodbyes to him on that Thursday afternoon, which was emotional for me, but I know that he’s in a better place, and obviously Bar’s been waiting for him,” he said, referring to Barbara Bush.

In recent years, the Kennebunkport Historical Society has housed a rotating exhibition of Bush’s mementos, from his golf clubs to the jumpsuit he wore when he sky-dived on his 90th birthday, landing on the grounds of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church. The executive director, Kirsten Camp, said the society had recently taken down an exhibition on Barbara Bush to put up a Christmas display, but she had come in Saturday morning to bring out some of the Bush family items.

She said the fact that Bush’s death had come on the first weekend of Christmas Prelude, the town’s annual Christmas celebration, meant that the town was packed and that the reporters who had come were having a hard time getting around.

“I think President Bush would be kind of chuckling a little bit,” she said.

Bradbury knew Bush both through the Conservation Trust, of which Bush was a strong supporter, and through a family grocery store he used to own, where the Bushes would often do their shopping.

In 2009, he said, a group of Bush’s friends had placed a naval anchor at a spot overlooking Walker’s Point, in a tribute to him. Bush had often called Kennebunkport his “anchor to windward,” referring to an anchor dropped in a storm to keep a ship from wrecking.

“It means it’s kind of a place of safety,” Bradbury said.