Former President Bush stands between Monmouth College President Richard Giese and Dean George Arnold on the commencement platform in 2000.

President Bush’s 2000 visit still resonates with Monmouth College alumni

MONMOUTH, Ill. — The passing of President George H.W. Bush on November 30 is particularly bittersweet for members of the Monmouth College Class of 2000.

Monmouth College in the spring of their senior year was on the threshold of a new awakening. Over the ensuing decade, the acreage of the campus would nearly double, while $120 million would be invested in new buildings and renovated facilities. The endowment, which stood at just under $50 million, would nearly double. Enrollment had also nearly doubled since 1992.

It was in this expectant atmosphere that the Class of 2000 was excited to learn that for the first time in the history of Monmouth College, a former U.S. president would present their commencement address. George H.W. Bush, accompanied by his wife, Barbara, agreed to address the 143rd Monmouth Commencement at the invitation of Jim Pate ’63, a member of the board of trustees, who was also president and CEO of Pennzoil and a neighbor of the Bushes in Texas.

Dressed in academic regalia, a Secret Service agent precedes Bush in the recessional.

Since the previous November, a large planning committee had convened regularly to make sure that every detail of the Bush visit was covered. Associate dean of students Mohsin Masood was assigned the daunting task of working with the Secret Service and coordinating its advance visit. One advance agent reportedly visited Monmouth a week before the event, dressed in factory-worker clothes and hanging out in local bars to listen for rumors of any potential threats to the ex-president. During the processional, two agents dressed in academic robes and wearing earpieces would walk in front of and behind Bush.

Many other special needs had to be addressed, such as renting crowd barriers and engaging a video company to provide livestreaming, with a command center set up in McMichael Academic Hall.

It went without saying that in a small Midwestern town, a visit by a former president was a big deal, and all the city leaders came together to try to make the Bushes’ time in Monmouth special, with welcoming signage and dressing up the downtown. An elaborate gift basket containing locally made pottery and other Maple City mementos was put together to present to the presidential couple.

On the night before commencement, Monmouth College president and first lady Dick and Sandy Giese evacuated Quinby House so it could be a private and well-secured overnight accommodation. Bush had flown in that evening after having delivered the commencement address at Rice University during the afternoon. Early the next morning, Bush took to Gibson Woods Golf Course for a brisk round of golf with trustees, administrators and other guests.

On the afternoon of Sunday, May 14 — Mother’s Day — record numbers of news media and community members joined a seated crowd of 2,500 that included family and friends of the 221 members of the senior class.

First Lady Barbara Bush takes a bow at Commencement.

With the weather clear and sunny, Bush gave an address entitled “A New Patriotism,” in which he said, “We still have much to accomplish as a country. We’ve so much more to do, which is why we still need good and decent people to get involved — to get off the sidelines and roll up their sleeves and give something back.”

Bush also told the Class of 2000 to “be bold in your caring, bold in your dreaming and, above all else, always do your best for yourself, for your family and, yes, for your country.”

Following his speech, Bush shook each graduate’s hand after they had received their diploma and posed for a picture with them. That kindness proved to be a Bush trademark for the weekend, as all who were close to him commented on his warm personality. Bush even showed a great sense of humor, making several jokes in his speech, including one referring to the popular impersonation of him by comedian Dana Carvey.

Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College.