Barbara Bush, Nonprofit Leader

The former first lady, who died this week at the age of 92, helped raise millions of dollars for family literacy efforts that continue to this day—with a little help from her dogs.

First lady Barbara Bush left her mark on the world in many ways—as the wife of one president, and the mother of another—but perhaps the largest personal legacy she leaves behind is that of her nonprofit endeavors, particularly with literacy.

Bush, who died Tuesday at age 92, first got involved in the cause of family literacy during the 1980s when she served as second lady when her husband, George H.W. Bush, was Ronald Reagan’s vice president. Per a biography on the Bush Presidential Library & Museum website, Bush was deeply concerned by the fact that 35 million U.S. adults could not read above an eighth-grade level.

“If more people could read or write, we could be much closer to solving so many other problems that our country faces,” Bush is quoted as saying.

Bush was an author herself—albeit one who specialized in her pets. In 1984, she wrote a book based on her dog C. Fred, titled C. Fred’s Story, an endeavor that raised $100,000 for literacy charities. She furthered this cause after her husband of 73 years became president, forming the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy in 1989—a foundation she partly funded through sales of another book written based on her dog, called Millie’s Book.

The book, which topped The New York Times’ nonfiction charts, was credited to Millie, but the first lady was the ghostwriter. A 1990 Times review of the book, written by Garfield (yes, that Garfield), called the title “pretty darned impressive.”

“Most of the dogs I know would rather chew on a book than write one,” Garfield wrote. “Oh, sure, Millie had help from the First Lady, but Millie’s wit, style and incisiveness are clearly stamped throughout.”

Laugh all you want at the idea of the first lady writing in the voice of her dog, but that book raised $1.1 million for her foundation, which is still active today, and has offered educational opportunities to people in all 50 states. Since then, the foundation has raised more than $110 million to support its basic mission, per CNBC. (Bush eventually wrote about a human subject—herself—in a 1994 memoir about her life, as well as a 2004 book about the years after the presidency.)

Bush led the foundation for a number of years, and its legacy lives on in her memory. In a news release, current interim CEO Chris Frangione said that the nonprofit’s mission has, in the long run, proved a powerful one.

“My favorite quote from Mrs. Bush is, ‘Believe in something larger than yourself … get involved in the big ideas of your time,’” Frangione stated. “She believed in the power of literacy to strengthen families and our nation, now and for generations to come. Her passion for big ideas will live on through the Foundation, continuing to inspire us as we work toward literacy for all.”

Bush’s nonprofit work wasn’t entirely limited to literacy. In 1990, for example, she helped organize the White House Endowment Fund to help support the work of the White House Historical Association along with the maintenance of the presidential residence. The fund continues to this day.

The life of Barbara Bush was one largely served in the public eye, and one that made a major impact on the world at large. And it’s a life that will live on through her nonprofit work.

(George Bush Presidential Library and Museum/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!