Barbara Bush had one last surprise for her granddaughter, Jenna Bush Hager. It was a letter that arrived two weeks ago alerting her to a longtime friend and prep school roommate, Dee Stites, who lives here in Durango.
“She told me a lot about Dee, and said, ‘I think you would like her and you should go and find her,” Hager told a full house at the Community Concert Hall on Wednesday night during the Making a Difference speaker series sponsored by the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado.
Hager didn’t have to search long. Stites, 93, had a front-row seat Wednesday evening, and before Hager spoke, Stites reminisced a bit about her roommate who called her “Lamby,” a twist on her maiden name, Lambert.
Hager said her grandmother’s well-known nickname as “the Enforcer” came from her nature to keep the family together and her loyalty to kin through good and bad times.
“Two weeks before her death,” Hager quipped, “she was writing a letter and bossing me around.”
Hager said her grandfather, George H.W. Bush, was doing better after being admitted to the hospital with blood infection shortly after Barbara Bush’s funeral, and said he was eating barbecue on Monday, a good sign.
“He wasn’t doing well the day after the funeral,” Hager said. “We thought he might go two days ago, but he wants to go to Maine.”
She said her grandfather is “goal-oriented” and he had set a goal to be in Maine. “It’s possible he might die of a broken heart,” she said. But she believes he will soon be enjoying his favorite state.
The power of a single person committed to improve a family, a neighborhood or a community, she said, was first learned from her grandparents.
Hager’s second child, Poppy, is named after George H.W.’s nickname – the name finalized while watching a documentary about her grandfather. From the film, she learned her grandfather had stood up for a classmate at Phillips Academy Andover who was bullied, probably because he was Jewish.
“We want to raise a girl who will use her voice for good,” she said.
Her grandfather said no life could be truly happy without service to others. She remembers as a 7-year-old listening to his inauguration speech and his use of the metaphor “a thousand points of light” to inspire people to participate in community service.
As she matured, she said she fully realized the importance of passing on service and giving from one generation to another.
Her work as a founding chair of UNICEF Next Generation was inspired by the work of her grandparents as was her work as an elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.
When first offered a job with the “Today” show, she said she wanted to focus on telling the extraordinary stories of ordinary people.
Ana, a woman she met in Latin America and who inspired her book, Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope, was her most influential teacher, Hager said.
She recounted Ana’s effort to prevent passing on the HIV infection she had to her daughter, Beatrice.
“Ana showed me the power of each of us to change lives,” she said.
Before Hager spoke, Stites said that through the years, her and Barbara kept up with each other, exchanging letters. She remembers Barbara met her future husband at a Christmas dance, and she still remembers Barbara receiving “a flood of letters” from her future husband after the dance.