It all started with a simple request to a friend: the name of the girl in the pretty red-and-green holiday dress. The answer? “That’s Barbara Pierce.”
They were just 16 and 17 years old at that 1941 Christmas dance at Greenwich Country Club, but, when Barbara Pierce caught the eye of one Poppy Bush, as George was known then, it was the first spark of a love story that later catapulted into the international spotlight. George H.W. and Barbara Bush became one of the nation’s favorite and most respected couples for the greater part of the century.
The friend cut in on Barbara’s dance partner that night and brought her over to meet Poppy. The attraction was mutual. Bush later told his mother he met the “niftiest girl at the dance,” and Barbara regaled to her mother that evening that she met “the nicest, cutest boy, named Poppy Bush,” as it was explained in “Destiny and Power” by Jon Meacham.
Soon after, Barbara traveled back to boarding school at Ashley Hall. It was there — right here in the Lowcountry — that love grew between the future president and first lady as they penned letters to each other in the early months of 1942. Over spring vacation, Bush asked her to be his date at his senior prom in Massachusetts. Her reply came on personalized stationary that reads “Barbara Pierce, Ashley Hall, Charleston, S.C.” across the top:
“Dear Poppy, I think it was perfectly swell of you to invite me to the dance and I would love to come or go or whatever you say. I wrote Mother yesterday or the day before and rather logically, I haven’t heard from her, but I’m sure she is going to let me come or go, etc. I really am excited but scared to death, too. If you hear a big noise up there, don’t worry, it’s just my knees knocking.”
Prom on that June Massachusetts evening was a great date, and when George walked her back to where she was staying — with a friend of her sister — he kissed her on the cheek “in front of the world.” She recalled the feeling, “I floated into my room and kept the poor girl I was rooming with awake all night while I made her listen to how Poppy Bush was the greatest living human on the face of the earth,” according to Meacham.
Their first real kiss — also a first-ever for both — finally happened at the end of that summer when Barbara was preparing to return for her senior year at Ashley Hall, and Bush was preparing to go to Navy flight training in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Bush later wrote to his mother, “Kissing is not an obligation a girl owes a boy regardless of how often he takes her out or how much money he spends,” he wrote. “I kissed Barbara and am glad of it. I don’t believe she will ever regret it or resent it, and I certainly am not ashamed of it.”
He proposed about a year and a half after they met and gushed his love for her in the only surviving letter written during World War II from George to Barbara — she lost all the other letters he had written her.
“My darling Bar, I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life. How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours some day. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you. … Bar, you have made my life full of everything I could ever dream of — my complete happiness should be a token of my love for you.”
They were married for 73 years before they both passed away last year, nearly 77 years after that Christmas dance.
Barbara, Class of 1943, returned to her Ashley Hall alma mater in her later years. She visited in 1999, and commented, “It was really lovely with so many new buildings, including a new swimming pool. I saw the grove where I used to be in school plays. … It had all changed so — from a day / boarding school to a much bigger campus and no boarders.” The school even coordinated with seven of her former classmates for a small reunion.
Her time at the school is perhaps best summed up in a speech she gave at Ashley Hall’s 1984 graduation: “Ashley Hall taught me the importance of friendship and values. They were treasured years and remembered fondly.”
In 2016, the last time she visited before her death, she was asked her favorite memory of Ashley Hall.
“I have lots of great memories of my time here. Particularly receiving letters from a young man named George Bush!”
By Anne Shuler Toole