The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum has been open for a year now, and the former president has often said the visitor experience would not be the same without his team of 300 dedicated volunteers. At least 22 are from Lake Highlands, and I sat down with some of them to ask about their experiences and why they choose to give their time each week.
“I enjoy interacting with the visitors,” said retiree Pierce Noble. “I like talking to them about where they were on 9/11.”
“I became a volunteer because I love history, politics and international affairs, all of which are incorporated into the museum,” said Jackson Durbin, a junior in Richardson High School’s magnet program.
“I like presidential history and I like what the Bush family represents,” said teacher Ann McNutt. “And I like the people I volunteer with,” she added. “We have a lot of fun.”
“The National Archives and the presidential libraries are real treasures for the American people,” said Mike Alverson, who has done research at the National Archives and the LBJ Library. “The museums at the presidential libraries give visitors a chance to appreciate the challenges that each president deals with during their term of office. Each museum is a time capsule of that period.”
“I never volunteered for anything in my life, except maybe the Marine Corps, but that was kind of different,” joked veteran Tim Carr. “George W. Bush was a hell of a president, and he’s a whole lot more president than I realized before I came here.”
The selection process includes completion of an application, interview and training.
“It’s a Level 4 secured facility, frequently visited by a living president,” explained volunteer Sherman Burns. “The Pentagon is Level 5.”
For many, their favorite gig is duty in the 9/11 exhibit, which includes television news coverage of the terrorist attacks, a beam from the World Trade Center and other memorabilia from our country’s traumatic time.
“I highly suggest that you stop there. It gives you a chance to reset your priorities,” urged David Eckel. “You see ‘wow, the world did change.’ If you’re not moved by seeing the beam, the video vignettes – you’re not human.”
Burns, who recently found the name of a business acquaintance etched on the World Trade Center wall of remembrance, agrees.
“That really hit me hard. It made me realize there were 3,000 people who didn’t do anything wrong that morning other than go to work and do what they do. The reason we have the 9/11 exhibit is so that people will not forget.”
“I remember how emotional I got the first time I went through the exhibit, recalling where I was on 9/11,” said Alice Swank. “I was a school teacher at school that morning, and I was in tears remembering. We always have tissues ready for our visitors.”
Mildred Brown’s daughter normally took Flight 93 to Pennsylvania.
“For whatever reason she took a different flight, so she sat on the tarmac that day,” Brown told me. “At that time she was expecting her first child, and I have enjoyed taking my 12-year-old grandchild through the center.”
“I find that this is on lots of people’s bucket list,” said Kris Densing, “to see the presidential library of every living president.” Kris has met several people who’ve seen them all, including all three in Texas. Passbooks can be obtained at any presidential library.
“I had a gentleman who came in last Saturday,” said Doris Westbrook. “He was on oxygen and in a wheelchair. He was 96 and it was his birthday. He had been a navy pilot at Pearl Harbor. All he wanted for his birthday was to come here.”
Judith Yaksick recalled a similar story about a veteran and the French soldier he rescued in WWII. They now alternate visiting each other annually. The Bush Library was this year’s joint destination.
She said even visitors whose politics don’t line up with President Bush often leave with a new perspective.
“Last week, a man came in with a ‘Ready for Hillary’ t-shirt. He said, ‘I didn’t really want to come here –she did,’ pointing to his wife. After seeing the exhibit he admitted ‘this is good.’”
Becky Pate has seen the same.
“A lady grabbed me at the exit and said I’m a Democrat but I sure do like the Bushes after being here.”
Eckel admits there are some light-hearted moments.
“When you buy a ticket, you’re given a color-coded sticker to wear marked ’43.’ Some people ask ‘what does 43 stand for?’ [George W. Bush was the 43rd president, and the elder Bush was the 41st.] I ask them ‘what does Richard Petty have to do with this?’” (The NASCAR driver famously wears the same number.)
“Some people think the Bushes live here,” said Yaksick. I’ve had people ask, ‘When will they be here today?’”
“I was working near the front cases with all the jewelry and a woman asked if Mrs. Bush ever wears the jewelry,” said Kathy Berry. “I said no, jewelry that’s given to Mrs. Bush becomes the property of the American people. She said, well, I’ve got this wedding on Saturday…”
After the recent SMU graduation, there was an influx of students dressed in caps and gowns to have their pictures made in the oval office.
“It was like ‘this is where I’m going to end up next,’” said McNutt. Several docents said they had enjoyed giving tours to celebrities.
“General Chuck Yeager was a lot of fun during his visit,” said Mary McWilliams. “He had tremendous spunk and spirit for a man over 90 years of age, and he still moves with a sense of urgency and speed. He said he was a warrior, and his job was to get the other guy before they could get him. When I asked how he liked the replica of the oval office, he replied that it was nice enough, but he had been in the real deal.”
“It makes my day when a guest says, ‘Thank you. I did not know that,’” said Laura Alverson, former teacher at LHHS. “In the Defending Freedom Gallery there is an interactive table about Iraq and Afghanistan. I talked to a young man who was accessing some information and he told me he had never used this technology before. He was interested in the table’s information about the American military efforts in Afghanistan. I asked him if he had served there, and he said ‘two tours.’ He then shared a story about an interaction between Afghani villagers and American soldiers.
“I did not realize that several families had gathered to listen. When the young man finished, a guest shook his hand and said, ‘Thank you for your service. I served in World War II.’ Another guest stepped forward and also thanked him and said, ‘I served in the Korean War.’ A third guest, a young woman, thanked him and said she was in the reserves and due to go overseas soon. He also thanked them and indicated that his family had a strong connection with the U.S. military. All these people gathered around him and talked about many things. Quite a few people, including me, had tears in their eyes or on their cheeks.”
“I recall approaching a group watching a video on the Wall of Freedom,” said Diane Teigen, “and realizing the man on the screen talking about suppressed freedom in China was in the group, watching himself on the video. It made the connection for me that these are very real people in very real struggles for freedom. The GWB doctrine believes in sponsoring freedom in the world to keep us safe here at home.”
F.H. “Andy” Anderson, LHHS grad in 1965, says volunteering at the library has taught him a few things.
“Even with all our real and perceived problems, we are privileged to live in the best place on earth. It takes all of us, working together relentlessly, to keep and advance our way of life.”
If you’d like to volunteer, visit the Bush Library website here for an application. You’ll commit to at least one 4.5 hour shift per week for one year via convenient online signups (after a background check).
And yes, say the volunteers. The Bushes do like to pop in for surprise visits.