HOUSTON (Reuters) – Former U.S. President George H.W. Bush’s family took center stage at his funeral in Houston on Thursday, with personal tributes, grandsons who knew him better as “Gampy” serving as honorary pallbearers and granddaughters reading from the Bible.
Bush, the 41st U.S. president, died last week in Texas at age 94. His remains were flown to Texas on Wednesday evening after a state funeral at Washington’s National Cathedral attended by U.S. President Donald Trump, the four living former U.S. presidents and foreign leaders.
Thursday’s service took place at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, where Bush worshipped for more than 50 years, with more than 1,000 mourners singing “America the Beautiful.”
George W. Bush, who followed his father to the White House, making just the second father-son pair of presidents in U.S. history, sat in the front pew near the flag-draped casket.
George P. Bush, son of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and one of the former president’s 17 grandchildren, reminisced about fly fishing and sharing Blue Bell Creameries ice cream, a well-known Texas brand, as a child with the man he called “Gampy.”
James Baker, who served as Bush’s secretary of state and was a longtime friend, eulogized the former president as a peacemaker and “a truly beautiful human being.”
“He was not considered a skilled speaker, but his deeds were quite eloquent and he demonstrated their eloquence by carving them into the hard granite of history,” Baker said, summarizing Bush’s accomplishments in foreign policy.
Mourners laughed as Baker recalled how Bush would let him know a conversation was over: “‘Baker, if you’re so smart, why am I president and you’re not?’” His voice cracking at moments, Baker said he was at his friend’s deathbed last week.
Raised in an Episcopalian family in Massachusetts, Bush fused his preppy New England background with the more free-wheeling traits of his adoptive state of Texas, where he moved as a young man to work in the oil industry.
This mix was reflected in some of Bush’s musical choices for his funeral: the St. Martin’s Parish Choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” country music star Reba McEntire sang “The Lord’s Prayer,” and the casket was carried out of the church at the end of the service to the thunderous rhythm of “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
Following the service, Bush’s remains were being taken by car and train about 80 miles (130 km) northwest to his presidential library in College Station, Texas. He will be interred there alongside the graves of his wife, Barbara Bush, who died in April, and their daughter Robin, who died of leukemia at the age of 3 in 1953.
The train is a Union Pacific Corp locomotive, numbered 4141 and bearing the name “George Bush 41” on the side.
Bush, who narrowly escaped death as a naval aviator who was shot down by Japanese forces over the Pacific Ocean in World War Two, will be buried with military honors, including a flyover by 21 aircraft from the U.S. Navy.
Bush was president from 1989 to 1993, navigating the collapse of the Soviet Union and expelling former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s forces from oil-rich Kuwait.
He supported the passage of the American with Disabilities Act, a major civil rights law protecting disabled people from discrimination.
A patrician figure, Bush was voted out of office in part for failing to connect with ordinary Americans during an economic recession. He has also been criticized for supporting tough drug laws that led to the disproportionate incarceration of black people, as well as what activists call an insufficient response to the AIDS epidemic when he was in power during some of its deadliest years.
But many tributes in recent days have focused on the former Republican president as a man of integrity and kindness who represented an earlier era of civility in American politics.
Reporting by Liz Hampton in Houston; Additional reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston, Steve Holland in Washington, D.C., and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Scott Malone and Frances Kerry