By Patricia Ann LaSalle M.L.A. ’05
It came in the form of five presidents, including President Barack Obama. It was the first gathering of the so-called President’s Club in several years, bringing together Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the center of their attention and expressed admiration on this day.
It came in the form of more than 10,000 visitors from around the world, including heads of state such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
They came to help dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Center, housing the first presidential library and museum of the 21st century, the first such facility of the social media age, and the third to be located in Texas.
“This is a Texas-size party, worthy of what we’re here to do today: celebrate the legacy of the 43rd president,” Obama said. He praised Bush’s “incredible strength and resolve that came through the bullhorn after the September 11 attacks, his compassion in advancing global health, and his bipartisan efforts on education and immigration. He is a good man.”
For SMU President R. Gerald Turner, the “significance of April 25 cannot truly be described or predicted, as it opens up the home of documents and artifacts chronicling a unique time in U.S. history. No matter what one’s political views, the Bush Center establishes SMU as a major resource for presidential history. The world truly came to SMU on April 25, and it will continue to do so because of the Bush Center.”
The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum is the 13th such resource in the nation operated by the National Archives and Records Administration, a federal agency. The George W. Bush Institute, an independent public policy organization, reports to the Bush Foundation.
Starting April 22, the SM U campus became hospitality central hosting 12 events in five days planned by the Bush Foundation, ranging from private dinners for donors and dignitaries to the formal dedication ceremony to a massive block party co-hosted by SMU and the Bush Center. For the pageantry of the dedication, a massive stage and seating area were erected on the north side of the Bush Center along SMU Boulevard, with seating also on the nearby intramural field. SMU faculty, staff and students not attending the ceremony watched simulcasts online, in McFarlin Auditorium or at an outdoor screen.
Each former U.S. president made remarks praising Bush for progress on issues they share in common.
In his remarks, Bush turned the spotlight on SMU. “I want to thank the people who have made this project a success. President Gerald Turner runs a fantastic university … with active trustees, dedicated faculty and a student body that is awesome,” the latter remark eliciting a huge cheer from students in the audience. He continued, “Today I am proud to dedicate this center to the American people.”
To plan and execute dedication events, Bush Center staff and vendors worked with SMU departments throughout the University. The campus resembled a giant fairground, with tents, stages, outdoor viewing screens, media platforms, special fencing for security zones, and seating areas, all in various stages of assembly. More than 600 media representatives from around the world converged on campus, among them Diane Sawyer of ABC and Matt Lauer of NBC. An episode of Meet the Press was filmed in a journalism class with host David Gregory.
SMU staff made sure the campus exuded hospitality – with welcome banners, information booths, campus maps listing nearby restaurants, and numerous “comfort stations” (read: portapotties).
After the ceremony, SMU’s libraries, the Meadows Museum and other campus attractions held open houses for visitors to sample the University’s resources.
More than 200 members of the SMU community volunteered to help the Bush Center beyond performing their regular duties, while others assisted in their professional capacities. Many staff members began shifts at 4 a.m. with an uncertain end time. Because security was tight, visitors and media had to arrive hours before the 10 a.m. ceremony to accommodate inspections and screening by magnetometers.
“SMU’s goal from the start was to be a gracious host,” said Brad Cheves, SMU vice president for development and external affairs. “That meant no task was too trivial. There were administrators driving golf carts to get visitors across campus. Others helped guests board shuttles at the nearby DART rail station. It was round-the-clock service, and we were honored to provide it,” said Cheves, who co-chaired SMU’s dedication event team with Tom Barry, SMU vice president for executive affairs.
One of the biggest challenges for SMU was to change campus parking assignments for most students, staff and faculty April 24-26. To accommodate those being affected, SMU rented a parking lot downtown, ran shuttles to campus and encouraged use of mass transit. The University decided not to cancel classes, but concern about crowds and traffic led some faculty to hold classes online, some staff to work from home (and some students simply to stay home). Officials in University Park, Highland Park and Dallas helped spread the word about road closures and high-traffic areas, “and our neighbors were very patient about any inconveniences,” Cheves said. “The result was an orderly, accommodating and hospitable campus that presented the best face of SMU.”
At the same time, SMU was under the watchful eyes of more than 200 law enforcement personnel from SMU police and local, state and federal agencies, in addition to the U.S. Secret Service, which supervised security for the dedication. F-16 jets and helicopters could be heard flying nearby.
The capstone event, especially for SMU community members not present at the dedication ceremony, was an evening block party on the intramural field and lighting of the Bush Center’s Freedom Hall. Those events attracted more than 13,000 students, faculty and staff and their families, SMU neighbors and Bush Center guests. Featuring games, food and entertainment by students and alumnus Jack Ingram ’93, the block party culminated with a nine-minute pyrotechnics show. It included a pattern-changing light show on the Bush Library façade. Fireworks formed a giant “W” in the sky.
On April 29, SMU students, faculty and staff got a preview of the Bush Museum, opened exclusively for them in advance of the public opening May 1. (Admission will remain free to students, faculty and staff.) They saw museum exhibits ranging from the somber to the inspirational, as well as a lighthearted look at life in the White House. Among exhibits drawing the most attention were those on the 9/11 attacks. The museum houses floor-to-ceiling twisted and charred pieces of steel from the second tower of the World Trade Center. Visitors are encouraged to touch. Even though the Museum’s exact replica of the Oval Office represents the setting for difficult, world-changing decisions, the sunny room served as a welcome counterpoint, eliciting excitement as students took turns posing for photos in the presidential chair.
Others found the Museum’s Decision Points Theater worthy of serious attention. “You listen to the facts about a particular controversial issue and then decide how you would handle it if you were president,” said Christine Buchanan, SMU professor of biological sciences. “At first I was skeptical and suspected that it was rigged, but after watching visitors vote to disagree with what the president actually decided to do, I have more confidence in the display. It does require you to think or at least to listen.”
Buchanan hopes the Bush Museum visit will “inspire students to visit other presidential museums or read further on the issues of that administration.”
Issues that remain close to the Bushes – global health, education, economic growth and human freedom – are the focus of the Bush Institute, an independent policy organization that includes initiatives advancing women and the military. Although the Institute is housed in the same building as the Library and Museum, the Institute faces west toward campus as a symbolic gesture inviting academic interactions. The Library and Museum entrance faces north on SMU Boulevard. The 226,565-square-foot Bush Center occupies 23 acres featuring Texas prairie landscaping.
Its intersection is SMU Boulevard and the new Bush Avenue, representing renamed portions of Airline and Dublin.
The Bush Institute already has worked collaboratively with SMU. Active since 2010, the Institute has sponsored 12 symposia on campus attracting more than 2,500 participants from around the world and involving faculty and students in related disciplines. Various SMU schools and centers have co-sponsored Bush Institute programs, are engaging in joint research projects or have made concurrent appointments of Institute Fellows to the SMU faculty. President Bush has visited SMU classes on topics ranging from journalism to immigration, and more than 100 students have served as Bush Center interns in its temporary facilities.
On April 19, SMU celebrated Founders’ Day as part of its centennial commemoration. Events included an official welcome ceremony for the Bush Center, with Bush as a surprise guest. Student leaders presented Bush with 100 letters of welcome written by their classmates. “Mr. President, you probably don’t know it, but you and I have been pen pals since I was in the fifth grade,” wrote Cole Blocker ’15. “Now I have the privilege again of writing to you to thank you and Mrs. Bush for establishing the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of SMU. I believe that Mrs. Bush said it best when she said, ‘There’s nothing like a trip to the library.’”