Laura Bush (born 1946) – First Lady, Teacher, Librarian
Laura Bush was born on November 4th, 1946 to Harold and Jenna Welch. Harold was a home builder, and Jenna kept the books for his home building business. Laura is described as an easygoing and happy child in memoirs. The Welchs initially wanted to have a large family, but Laura was their only child, which she later described as a “disappointment”. Jenna quit her job and became a housewife after Laura was born, but had a lot of interests outside of her marriage, which she passed on to Laura.
The Welch’s lived in Midland, Texas. Midland was an oil town, and Laura grew up close to her future husband, George Bush, though they never met as children or teenagers. As a young girl, Laura took ballet, swimming lessons, and sang in the church choir. She also participated in the Girl Scouts program. From the age of seven, Laura knew that she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up.
As a teenager and a young adult, Laura was a camp counselor and went camping frequently. She also swam with her friends during the hot Texas summers, and Laura’s home was known as a house where friends were welcome. She attended Robert E. Lee High School, and worked on the yearbook along with taking honors classes. She is remembered as a kind girl, with an active social life. She also participated in the annual Powderpuff football game.
Laura faced tragedy at a young age. On November 6th, 1963, Laura was driving with a friend of hers. She ran a stop sign and hit another car that was driven by her close friend, Michael Douglas. Michael was thrown from the car and killed. The accident affected Laura deeply, but her close-knit family and friends helped her get through it.
Laura and her parents always knew that she would attend college. In seventh grade, she read the biography of Southern Methodist University athlete Doak Walker. From then on, she knew that she wanted to attend Southern Methodist University. She majored in education, beginning in the fall of 1964. SMU was a conservative school amidst the hippy chaos that was the 1960s. There were no political rallies, and the girls still wore dresses to school. She and her friends enjoyed playing bridge, listening to Beatles records, and shopping.
After graduating from SMU in 1968, Laura went to Europe with her aunt, uncle, and a cousin. Before her trip, she had applied for a teaching position in the city of Dallas School District. She was hired to teach third grade a few months into the school year. Her next teaching position was at a predominantly African-American School in Houston. She had said that she always wanted to teach at a minority School. During her time in Houston, she lived in the same apartment complex as her future husband, but they did not know each other.
In 1970, upon reflecting on what she liked best about her job, she enrolled in the library science graduate program at the University of Texas in Austin. She took a two-year master’s program and graduated with a Master of Library Sciences degree in 1972. Upon completing her graduate degree, she moved back to Houston and got her first job as a librarian. A year later, she moved back to Austin and became a librarian at Molly Dawson Elementary School.
“Libraries allow children to ask questions about the world and find the answers. And the wonderful thing is that once a child learns to use a library, the doors to learning are always open.”– Laura Bush
Laura made the trip back to Midland frequently to visit her parents and Friends. When she was 30, her former roommate hosted a barbecue at which she met George W. Bush. Laura and George hit it off right away, despite their completely different personalities. Laura was patient and calm, while George was extroverted and restless. They were married on November 5th, 1977. Their wedding was a simple ceremony at the First United Methodist Church in Midland, Texas. Laura had no bridesmaids, and the ushers were George’s three Brothers and Laura’s cousin. Their reception was held at the Racquet Club of Midland and they went on a short honeymoon in Mexico.
Shortly after the wedding, George and Laura hit the road to begin campaigning for the Texas state senate. Laura’s mother-in-law, Barbara Bush, gave her the advice to never criticize her husband’s speeches. Laura enjoyed taking road trips on the campaign trail but made it clear that she did not want to be a public person, or give speeches. That resolve was broken 2 months after the couple was married, when George asked her to make a speech for him in Muleshoe, Texas.
George lost the election, and the couple settled in Midland. Laura stayed busy with volunteering, and Midland’s Junior League. George began running his own oil business. They began trying to have a family shortly after their marriage, but by late 1980, they had decided to adopt a child. They were scheduled to begin home visits, when Laura discovered in March 1981 that she was pregnant with twins. The couple was delighted but scared when Laura developed preeclampsia. Their daughters had to be delivered 5 weeks early via cesarean section. They were born on November 25th, 1981. Barbara was born first and weighed 5 lb and 4 oz. Jenna soon followed, at 4 pounds, 12 ounces.
In 1987, George, Laura, and their daughters moved to Washington DC, so that George could help his father Bush Sr. with his presidential campaign. Laura and her mother-in-law, Barbara Bush became close friends during this time. It was also during this time that George purchased the Texas Rangers baseball team. The family eventually moved back to Dallas, and in 1993, George began talking about running for governor of Texas. Laura was initially reserved about the idea because she did not want their family to be in the public eye. George won the election, and they moved into the governor’s mansion in Austin on January 17th, 1995.
During Laura’s time as First Lady of Texas, she created the First Lady’s Family Literature Initiative, which funded two new programs called Ready to Read and Take Time for Kids. Laura was very focused on children’s literacy, and served on the board of Reading is Fundamental, Inx. She also promoted a program called the Greater Texas Community Partners program. This program supported caseworkers working with abused children and their families. Laura also participated in breast cancer awareness campaigns, supported the Susan G Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, and hosted a forum in 1994 that allowed women to talk about breast health and breast cancer. Additionally, Laura promoted Texas artists, and convinced the Texas Commission on the Arts to up their distribution to the arts to $7.3 million, from $4.1 million.
George W. Bush decided to run for president in the 2000 election. By this time, Laura was used to campaigning and speaking in public. During her husband’s campaign, she was often compared to Hillary Clinton, wife of outgoing President Bill Clinton. Her background as a teacher and librarian and her lack of political ambition was a direct contrast to Hillary Clinton’s philosophy that by electing Bill, “you got two presidents for the price of one”. Polls during that time showed strong favoritism toward Laura. Her apparent traditionalism appealed to many conservatives.
After a hotly-contested 2000 election, which was in gridlock for over a month, George Bush was declared the winner. Laura was praised by her father-in-law, former President George H.W. Bush, who said that she was calm and unruffled during the 35 days that the election was up in the air. Laura soon met with Hillary Clinton, who gave her the advice to carefully consider invitations that she would be receiving, so that she would not miss out on an opportunity. Laura relied heavily on the advice of her mother-in-law, former first lady Barbara Bush.
After they moved into the White House, Laura continued to visit the family’s ranch in Texas regularly. There, she could escape the pressures of Washington, and enjoy her hobbies such as bird watching and gardening. Laura felt that it was important to keep having her own life outside of the White House. She was also busy getting her daughters Barbara and Jenna ready to attend college. Barbara would be attending Yale University and Jenna was going to the University of Texas at Austin.
During her time as First Lady, Laura focused on the work that she thought needed immediate attention. Her pet projects included literacy, homelessness, and AIDS. She wanted to work with causes that she believed in and did not care to base her work on what was trendy or political at the time.
Laura was determined to keep her college-age daughters out of the public eye during George’s presidency. They had never let the girls be photographed or appear at political events when George was the Governor of Texas. However, keeping a low profile for the girls was difficult, as they were cited for underage drinking in 2001. Many newspapers took the story and ran with it. Young Barbara was later criticized for her attire when meeting with Queen Elizabeth. Laura was furious at the criticism and spoke with the press to address these issues in June of 2001.
While all of this was going on, Laura continued to work on her education initiatives. She hosted a summit in July of 2001 called Ready to Read, Ready to Learn, which focused on Early Childhood literacy. Another literacy initiative that she spearheaded was called Reach Out and Read, which also supported parents who either were illiterate or could not read in English. Finally, she supported an organization called Teach for America, which takes recent college graduates, and has them commit to teaching for 2 years in inner-city public schools. All of this led to her earning a 64% approval rating in her first six months as First Lady.
Laura was praised for her response to the September 11th, 2001 tragedies. She worked closely with the Red Cross to organize blood drives and went to Walter Reed Medical Center to speak to people who were injured in the attack on the Pentagon. She also wrote an open letter to elementary school students, and another one to middle and high school students, that was read aloud at public schools across the nation. These letters intended to comfort and give hope to students who may be frightened by the recent news of the terrorist attacks.
Laura continued her initiatives regarding literacy for the rest of her time as First Lady. She also became an advocate against heart disease. She wanted to increase awareness of heart disease among women, stating that she had always thought “it was a man’s disease”. She wanted to educate women about their cardiac health.
After leaving the White House in January of 2009, Laura and George Bush returned to Houston. Laura formed an unlikely alliance with incoming First Lady, Michelle Obama. Despite the differences in their husbands’ politics, the two women formed a friendship, and Michelle Obama has said that Laura was a wonderful friend and mentor for her.
Laura has continued to work in politics, campaigning for presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012, and helping with her brother-in-law Jeb Bush’s campaigns. She also continues to be involved with education, libraries and was instrumental in the formation of the Laura Bush Institute For Women’s Health at Texas Tech University. She and her daughter Jenna have co-authored two children’s books – Read All About It and Our Great Big Backyard. She has also written two non-fiction books. The first was her memoir, Spoken From the Heart, and the second was about the oppression of women in Afghanistan titled We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope.
Laura has also been busy with her adult daughters. Barbara graduated from Yale in 2004 and has become a public health activist. She married Craig Coyne in 2018 in a small ceremony at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, ME. Jenna graduated from the University of Texas in 2004 with a degree in English. She has since become an author and one of the hosts of the Today show. After a highly publicized courtship, she married Henry Hagar, whom she had met during the 2004 Presidential campaign, in 2008. The wedding took place in Crawford, Texas. They have three children, Mila, Poppy, and Henry, Jr.
Laura Bush is a quiet lady, but her personality cannot be mistaken for weakness. It takes courage to remain dignified and calm, as she has done throughout her husband’s political career. Laura’s soothing demeanor won her husband some votes, and she continues to be a voice for charity to this day.
- Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush, Scribner, 2011
- Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady by Ronald Kessler, Three Rivers Press, 2007
Images on this page
- Laura-Bush-with-family: U.S. State Department | public domain
- Laura-Bush-campaigning: RBerteig @ Flickr | CC BY 2.0 Generic
- Laura-Bush-honored-Book-Festival: White House photo by Joyce N. Boghosian | public domain
- Laura-Bush-greets-firefighters: George W. Bush Presidential Library, U.S. National Archives | Flickr | public domain