Valley native remembers meeting former President George H.W. Bush

Published 6:17 pm Thursday, December 6, 2018

The recent passing of President George H.W. Bush at 94 years of age has been cause for a national day of mourning and generated much discussion about his life and his legacy. There are some local connections to the man who was our 41st president. Langdale resident Hugo Parkman got to know Bush while serving in the Navy in World War II. West Point resident John Tidwell had a chance to meet him while serving as the executive general manager of the Fair Park development south of Dallas, Texas.

Six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bush enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He received training as a Naval aviator and in 1943 at 19 years of age was commissioned as an ensign. He was later promoted to a lieutenant. In Sept. 1944 his plane was shot down following a successful bombing run over a Japanese position. Three crewmen died in the incident with Bush being the lone survivor. He bailed out of the burning plane and managed to get into an inflated raft to await rescue.

Sailors from the submarine USS Finback pulled him out of the water approximately four hours later.

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Bush was on the sub for several weeks and participated in the rescue of other downed airmen.

During this time, he developed a friendship with Parkman, who was a crewman on the Finback. Parkman was the first sailor to greet Bush when he came below deck after being rescued. They were together for 30 days before Bush was dropped off at Midway Island. Bush never forgot the friend he nicknamed “Parkey,” and would later invite him for a visit to the White House.

Tidwell got to spend some time with the Bush family in 1989 when George H.W. Bush was president and his son, George W. Bush, owned the Texas Rangers.

“I have thought about that many times since then,” Tidwell said. “I was in a casual meeting with two presidents and two first ladies.”

Also in the hotel room was a famed presidential pet, Milly, the Bush’s dog.

Tidwell was invited to meet the president to discuss his dedicating a memorial to Vietnam veterans near Cotton Bowl Stadium.

“It was a beautiful monument,” Tidwell said, “and it was such an honor for me to talk to the president about it.”

That was probably the busiest weekend of Tidwell’s life. The presentation to the president was surrounded by two sold-out performances by legendary rock band The Rolling Stones.

“We had over 70,000 people for both concerts. It was a madhouse, but everything went off on schedule,” Tidwell said.

Tidwell said there’s no greater privilege for a boy who grew up in the Fairfax mill village than to have a one-on-one meeting with the president of the United States.

He learned he was going to do this some time in advance. Tidwell did his homework and realized the dedication would be on Earth Day 1989. Why not arrange to have an award presented to the president on behalf of the City of Dallas in appreciation for his long-time support of environmental initiatives?

City officials liked the idea and chose Tidwell to present it to him.

“It was going to be on a Saturday, and we had booked the Rolling Stones for two concerts,” Tidwell said. “It really tied up traffic on the interstates. Half of Dallas was praising me for having this going on and the other half was cursing me for causing them some inconvenience.”

Tidwell was the executive director of Fair Park at the time. Fair Park is a 277-acre recreational and educational complex on the outskirts of Dallas. It’s a National Historic Landmark and has been designated a Great Place in America by the American Planning Association. It’s called Fair Park because it’s the home of the Texas State Fair, which takes place every year on an 80-acre site near Cotton Bowl Stadium.

Tidwell said it was an experience meeting the president and his family in their room at the Double Tree Hotel. There were FBI and Secret Service people everywhere along with the Texas state patrol. Someone came up to him and asked him if he was John Tidwell. He said yes, showed some identification and was told to get on the elevator and go to the 16th floor.

“When the elevator door opened, two of the biggest men I’ve ever seen were standing there,” he said. “They were from the Secret Service. I told them I was John Tidwell, and I had an appointment to see the president. They knew about it and were very courteous toward me. They led me to the room. They rang the bell, and the president answered the door himself. He asked me in, introduced me to his wife Barbara, son George W. and his wife Laura. They were all so nice. We sat and talked about how the dedication program would go and I told him I had an Earth Day award I wanted to present him. He was appreciative of that and arranged for his official photographer to take a picture of the presentation.”

Tidwell said he really enjoyed talking baseball with George W. Bush, who was quite proud of the cowboy boots he was wearing. They were emblazoned with the Texas Rangers logos.

“I told him about growing up in Fairfax, Alabama, where baseball had been king,” he said. “I told him that we liked expressions like ‘hit ‘em where they ain’t.’”

The younger Bush told him he liked that and wished his team would do more of that.

After the meeting, Tidwell found that his wife, Madge, had had a pretty good day, too. “She’d gotten to meet the TV actor John Ritter (from “Three’s Company”). She was all excited about that.” he said. “That was quite a day for two people who had grown up in the Valley.”

Tidwell said he was most gratified that the president’s speech had gone off without a hitch and had been well received by the crowd. As the program was ending, Tidwell struck up a conversation with a Secret Service man he’d befriended that weekend.

“I told him I had spotted five of the six sharpshooters they had positioned to protect the president,” he said. “I told him I had looked all around and couldn’t find him. He kidded with me that I should have been looking low. They had him concealed in a storm drain.”

Tidwell said he also enjoyed talking to the helicopter pilot who had flown the president into the stadium.

“It was obvious they loved their boss,” he said. “They thought so much of the president and wanted to treat him right.”

Tidwell said he loved living and working in the Dallas area. “It was quite an experience,” he said.

Tidwell is 90 years old. He and Madge will celebrate their 69th anniversary on Christmas Day.

“I have been fortunate to have experienced a lot in my lifetime,” he said. “It was great playing baseball growing up and then playing in the minor leagues. That weekend in Dallas back in 1989 was like to other. It was fantastic being able to host two concerts by the Rolling Stones and to have the president in the same stadium on Saturday afternoon for a dedication.

“The best part was the privilege of being with the Bush family,” he said. “They were all so down to earth, just great people to be with.”