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Winkeler

The nonviolent death of an American president has a sobering, almost calming effect on the country, as evidenced by the Nov. 30 passing of George H.W. Bush.

The news of the president’s death was announced late Friday night with a reverence seldom seen on network news programs today.

The coverage of 41’s passing has focused on George Herbert Walker Bush, the man, and that seems appropriate. The stories and anecdotes related by friends and colleagues like James Baker and Alan Simpson reveal a side of presidents we seldom see.

By watching television this week, we’ve learned that President Bush, an excellent baseball player, kept the first-baseman’s mitt he used at Yale in his White House desk drawer. Those of us of a certain age can relate to that. A good baseball glove was a treasured possession, something that could rekindle warm memories and provide a sense of comfort.

Simpson told a story of accompanying the president to the roof of the White House to throw snowballs. They were careful to notify the Secret Service first to let them know the country wasn’t under attack from the North Pole.

Baker, a friend of 60 years, opined that George H.W. Bush was elected president by virtue of being nice to people. Considering the tone of today’s politics, that is a remarkable statement, a statement that makes us yearn for a kinder, gentler time.

There have been numerous stories of his lifelong love affair with Barbara Pierce, his wife of 73 years. The news has reminded us of young Mr. Bush’s heroic exploits in World War II. One of the Navy’s youngest aviators during WWII, President Bush flew 58 missions and was shot down twice.

After the war, Mr. Bush became involved in the oil business and entered the political fray. As with every politician, his politics gained acclaim in some circles, derision in others. However, nothing has been said in the days since his death that indicates President Bush was nothing other than a decent, caring, gentle man at his core.

America’s reaction to his passing reminds me of the death of Dwight D. Eisenhower, another military hero and the 34th president of the United States.

President Eisenhower died in March 1969, 17 years after leaving office.

Although President Eisenhower passed away nearly 50 years ago, his death remains a personal experience for me. The funeral train carrying President Eisenhower’s remains to Abilene, Kansas traveled the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad tracks, which passed through Beckemeyer, Illinois.

The funeral train was scheduled to roll through town a couple hours before sunset April 1, 1969. A freshman in high school, I hopped on my bicycle after getting off the school bus. I pedaled the three-miles into town to await the train.

People lined the tracks, waiting to pay their final respects — it wasn’t often a president, even one going to his final resting place — passed through Beckemeyer.

Several of my buddies gathered at the home of a friend, located adjacent to the railroad tracks. Someone came up with a football, and kids being kids — a pickup game ensued. However, at the first sounds of the trail whistle the game broke up.

We joined the adults standing in silence along the railroad tracks until the train was well out of sight. Then, quietly, we went our separate ways. The sense of history, the solemnness of the occasion told us, even at 14 years of age, that resuming the football game was wholly inappropriate.

The passing of a president is always a serious time in American history. And, thankfully, it is a time we can come together as a nation, if only for a few days, to remember that we have more than binds us together than pulls us apart.

Godspeed 41.

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LES WINKELER is sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan, and serves on the editorial board. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088. Follow him on Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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