When Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons heard the news about President George H.W. Bush’s passing, he did something he rarely does: put the family flag at half-staff.
It hit close to the heart.
“He played such a significant role in my life at certain points in my life where things weren’t going well,” Simmons said. “When I was in the CIA, things weren’t going well. When I was looking for support for my re-election race in a blue state where Republicans weren’t supposed to win, he came up and helped out.”
It was 2002 and Simmons was running for re-election into the U.S. Congress. Bush’s son, then President George W. Bush, asked his father do to fundraisers for certain candidates, according to Simmons, who found a way to ask Bush's staff if the former president would be willing to speak at a campaign breakfast.
“When it was over I said, ‘Thank you Mr. President and now the Secret Service wants you to go out the side door to catch your plane.’ And he said, ‘But I haven’t had breakfast yet.’ And I went ‘Oh, well! Let’s get you down to the table,’” Simmons recalls.
Bush, at the Mystic Marriot, was eating breakfast with Simmons and his family, whom he agreed to take a photo with, and spoke with Simmons’ constituents.
“Such a model of being so experienced so well educated and so versed in foreign policy and so many issues and yet so down to Earth,” he said of the late president.
Simmons was with the CIA during the time Bush briefly served as director from 1976 to 1977. He credits Bush with boosting morale after the Watergate scandal prompted a series of investigations.
“He was so supportive because here’s a guy who’s a WWII veterans. Here’s a guy who had fought in war and knew the importance of having good intelligence,” Simmons said.
Bush was supportive years later, too, including 1991, when Simmons ran to become a state representative in the Connecticut General Assembly.
“And the next thing I know I got a letter in the mail from the president saying congratulations! It’s unbelievable,” Simmons said.
He has the letter framed in his office.
It says, in part: “With the continued efforts of Republicans like you, I am convinced that we can fulfill our greatest hopes for the United States. Barbara joins me in sending our best wishes and congratulations.”
Simmons actually met Barbara Bush first. The two were studying Chinese at the Foreign Service Institute. Bush was appointed as the U.S. envoy to China. Barbara Bush wanted to make sure she knew the language.
She would often sit with Simmons and his classmates for tea breaks.
After all these years, 41’s example is one Simmons took to heart.
“The way he lived with his family, loved his family, conducted himself in public life, that’s the way I wanted to be too.”