Former UM Officials, Staff Recall George H.W. Bush’s Visit, Legacy

Late 41st president spoke during Commencement exercises 33 years ago

Vice President George H.W. Bush spends time with Leone King (center) and Chancellor R. Gerald Turner before his Commencement address in Tad Smith Coliseum. Photo courtesy Leone King

OXFORD, Miss. – As the world mourns the passing of George H.W. Bush, former administrators and staff at the University of Mississippi are reflecting on the 41st president’s campus visit more than three decades ago.

Bush, then-vice president under President Ronald Reagan, delivered the address during the university’s 132nd Commencement exercises in May 1985. R. Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University since 1995, was chancellor at UM at the time.

“It was my first year as chancellor at Ole Miss, and we wanted someone of note for this occasion,” Turner said. “Through my associations with U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran and (U.S. Rep.) Sonny Montgomery, who regularly played golf with the vice president, we invited Mr. Bush to come and deliver the keynote address. He graciously accepted our invitation.”

Turner remembered “intense” preparations between the time Bush agreed to attend Commencement and his arrival on campus.

“The Secret Service came in the day before and did an extremely thorough check of the entire campus and all the areas where Vice President Bush would be while here,” he said. “The day before, my wife Gail and I noticed they had snipers in the woods behind the chancellor’s home to prevent any unauthorized intruders from entering the premises. They really left no stone unturned.”

Leone King (left) greets Barbara Bush at Tad Smith Coliseum. Photo courtesy Leone King

Despite the Secret Services’ best efforts, Bush threw caution to the wind on one occasion, Turner said.

“The Secret Service people were holding the Bushes, my wife and I behind closed doors waiting for a reception to begin,” Turner said. “As the people began to arrive, we could hear the increasing noise of their voices.”

At some point, Bush asked Turner what was going on. After explaining to the vice president what was about to happen, Bush asked, “What do you want to do?”

“I told him, ‘I’d rather we were out there meeting and greeting the people,'” Turner said. “Mr. Bush then responded, ‘Well then, let’s go.’

“He just opened the closed door, entered the room and began introducing himself to everyone. That’s the kind of warm and friendly person he was.”

Other former UM staff members who worked the events connected to Bush’s appearance include Chancellor Emeritus Robert Khayat; Leone King, former assistant to the chancellor; and Robert Jordan, former director of university photography.

“It was my privilege to visit with President Bush on several occasions,” Khayat said. “I found him to be warm, bright, funny and with the unusual ability to make you feel he was interested in you and your comments. I believe he was the personification of the values that made America a great nation.”

“I remember President Bush and his wife as being very gracious people,” King said. “Security was tight, so I didn’t get to spend much time with him other than hooding him, which was something I did for all Commencement guest speakers.”

Vice President George H.W. Bush delivers his address at the University of Mississippi’s 132nd Commencement in May 1985. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Jordan, an award-winning photographer at UM for more than three decades, took pictures before, during and after Commencement. His memories of the late president’s visit remain vivid years later.

“I remember having to get clearance from Secret Service,” Jordan said. “I had a spot meter in my camera bag that somewhat resembled a gun, I guess. That momentarily made them a little nervous. Everything else after that remains pretty much a blur.”

Following the Ole Miss visit, Turner maintained close contact with the Bush family, even after he left the university 11 years later.

“Because his son’s (George W. Bush) presidential library is housed at SMU, we’ve had both ’41’ and ’43’ on our campus and in our home on several occasions,” Turner said.