The passing of First Lady Barbara Bush had a unique impact on this ESU alumnus

East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania is pleased to announce that Kristin Noblet, Ph.D., assistant professor of mathematics and Bonnie A. Green, Ph.D., professor of psychology, have each been published recently.

It was a short flight from Andrews Air Force Base to the Naval Observatory Landing Zone.  Marine II was bringing Second Lady Barbara Bush back to her new home in Washington, DC.  Tom Petro ’72 was a Special Agent with the U. S. Secret Service and assigned to the Vice-Presidential Protective Division. 

Agent Petro remembers the chop, chop, chop of the helicopter blades, the radio traffic in his left ear and then a pull on his right arm.  It was Mrs. Bush, commenting, “Looks like we have a welcoming party on the LZ!”  He took a quick look out the window and saw his wife and two daughters being escorted to the landing zone. 

This was quintessential Barbara Bush.  Her staff had noticed Petro’s family had arrived at the Secret Service Command Post to pick Dad up from work, and quickly planned this rendezvous with the Second Lady.  From the initial, dry-humored surprise, to her beeline from the aircraft to the waiting family, was something she did over and over again. 

According to Petro, her interest in the agents’ families was foremost and genuine. Petro was always impressed by her class, grace, and dignity, and he was taken off-balance by her quick wit and great sense of humor.  Petro said her dedication to her family and her respect and gratitude toward their families was unprecedented. And as that helicopter circled the landing zone that afternoon in 1982, Agent Petro had no idea of the significance or the extent of which that relationship would affect him over 35 years later.

On Oct. 21, 1992, Petro, who was now stationed at the Philadelphia Field Office, was assigned to lead an advance team for First Lady Barbara Bush’s campaign visit to Bucks County, Pa.  This would be Barbara Bush’s last official campaign stop, and 12 years from the first time Agent Petro officially crossed paths with the First Lady as one of her original detail agents.

That day was filled with irony and ended in Doylestown, Pa.  After a long day of campaigning, Advance Agent Petro escorted the First Lady to her motorcade, this time, for the last time.  In typical Barbara Bush style, she took the opportunity to thank all those close by, and then turned to Petro, winked and said, “We’ve been doing this a long time. Give my best to the girls. You live in a lovely town. Take care.”

In the few minutes it took for Petro to drive home, the impact of this farewell with Barbara Bush took hold.  The memories flowed from official trips around the world on the Bush Detail, side-by-side and step-by-step at the Great Wall of China, hustling through the streets of Casablanca, peering across the DMZ from South to North Korea, approaching Lenin’s Tomb in the last days of the Soviet Empire, trailing in jeeps through the plains of Nairobi, and sailing through the fjords of Bergen, Norway. It was a travel resume that seemed overwhelming in retrospect, and the historical significance was, at times, numbing for all. 

Some experiences were definitely pinch-me moments; others were raw in emotion. One of the most memorable happened in January 1981.  Petro was with Mrs. Bush when she and the Vice President welcomed home the hostages from Iran.  Fifty-two American Diplomats finally came home after 444 days of captivity.  Following their touch down and private welcome at Andrews Air Force Base, they motorcaded through the streets of Washington, D.C. to cheering crowds of proud Americans.

Then there were the lighter moments: teaching Mrs. Bush how to snorkel in Honolulu and then putting it to practice on a fuel stop in the Johnston Atolls halfway across the Pacific, driving the follow-up boat behind the Bush family in Kennebunkport, Maine, chasing her in a golf cart, and jogging with her around the 77 acres of the Naval Observatory grounds.  

In 1995, Petro and his wife Ann were vacationing in Maine and took a one-day trip to Kennebunkport.  As they were walking down the main street in town, a small compact car drove up along the sidewalk.  The window quickly rolled down and the driver leaned out and remarked, “What are you doing here?”  Yes, in Barbara Bush fashion, she welcomed Petro back to the port and then small-talked with the surprised couple for the next 20 minutes about family, friends, and her new private life. No longer under the watch of the Secret Service, she seemed happy and content, but very much the same Barbara Bush. 

Barbara Bush passed away on April 17, 2018, 38 years after that day Marine II was bringing Second Lady Barbara Bush back to her new home in Washington, D.C. Petro remembers that day with great fondness and with affection for a lady of boundless compassion, kindness, and empathy.  Memories of his days with Mrs. Bush will remain indelible and a highlight of his 21-year career with the Secret Service.