Jean Becker, chief of staff to the late President George H. W. Bush and author of “The Man I Knew,” was the feature speaker at the University of New England’s annual George and Barbara Bush Distinguished Lecture Series. Tammy Wells photo

BIDDEFORD — When former President George H. W. Bush turned to her and said “Jean, I have an idea,” as he frequently did, his chief of staff Jean Becker braced herself for whatever he might say next.

“He was the biggest idea person I ever met,” she said.

One of those ideas involved him jumping out of an airplane.

“I asked if he had told his wife” of his plans, Becker said.

Becker was chief of staff to President George H. W. Bush from 1994 until his death in 2018 and deputy press secretary to Barbara Bush from 1989 to 1992.

She was the featured speaker Thursday, Sept. 30, at the George and Barbara Bush Distinguished Lecture Series, hosted annually by the University of New England.

Becker’s stories of her boss were fond reminisces about an old friend. The stories were warm, funny and endearing — and reveal those same qualities she saw in the former president.

During the pandemic in 2020, Becker authored a book about Bush, called “The Man I Knew: The Amazing Story of  George H.W. Bush’s Post-Presidency.” She talked about her book and about the president and Barbara Bush in the hour-long presentation.

The book relates stories about how Bush lived his life, his penchant for practical jokes, and his character. She told a few of those stories Thursday — and she invited four of the president’s aides on stage to tell a few themselves.

Aides to President George H.W. Bush joined his chief of staff Jean Becker, center, as she spoke at the annual George and Barbara Bush Distinguished Lecture Series at the University of New England. Tammy Wells photo

“I wasn’t sure if I should write a book; I wasn’t sure they were my stories to tell,” Becker said from the podium. But she added, there were so many stories, and so she went ahead.

Becker was an engaging speaker, and there were frequent asides: “Mikhail Gorbachev once told me to shut up,” she said of the former Soviet leader, with a smile. “I kissed Tom Selleck,” she said in the next breath.

The lecture was attended by Bush daughter Doro Bush Koch,  Barbara Bush’s brother Scott Pierce, and other family members and friends, said University of New England President James Hebert.

“The Bushes were role models for our time,” said the college president as he welcomed Becker to the stage.

Becker spoke of George H.W. Bush’s friendship with former President Bill Clinton that blossomed in 2005, when President George W. Bush asked the two to put their heads together to encourage private fundraising to help those devastated by the tsunami in Indonesia.

The friendship grew.

“President Bush was the father Bill Clinton never had,” Becker told the audience.

She introduced the aides, who had their own stories.

Gian-Carlo Peressutti spoke of how the former president urged him to attend a Rolling Stones concert once official duties were over during a trip to Hawaii to mark Pepsi’s 100th birthday. Preressutti reminded the former president that his job was to escort him and Mrs. Bush back to their room.

“He said, ‘just go,'” Peressutti recalled, adding the former president took his tie and suit jacket and carried it back to the hotel. “I’ll never forget the 41st president carrying all my stuff to his room, just so I could have an evening and watch the concert.”

Then there was the time in Greensboro, North Carolina, when Bush reached out to shake a woman’s hand and the aide saw him move a bit awkwardly.

The Secret Service radioed back that they had to locate a men’s clothing store. They ended up at Walmart, with Bush asking the location of the men’s underwear department and telling the clerk exactly why he wanted to know. “The waistband of my boxers broke,” he told the woman.

Aide Tom Frechette said he had been on the job for three weeks when he was invited to a chat with Bush. As the aide sat down, a series of embarrassing noises emerged.

“I was unaware he had received an electronic version of a whoopie cushion,” said Frechette. He remembered thinking “this is going to be a wild ride.”

The late President George H.W. Bush was a man with a sense of humor, who delighted in practical jokes — like the time he short-sheeted the bed in the hotel room where granddaughters Barbara and Jenna were to sleep in during the Beijing Olympics in 2008, recalled aide Jim Appleby.

Coleman LaPointe recalled the day the 41st president of the United States saw a Secret Service agent arrive at work with his head shaven, asked why, and heard about Patrick, the 2 1/2-year-old son of another agent, who had been diagnosed with leukemia, and lost his hair to cancer treatment.

Bush, who lost daughter Robin to cancer, immediately said he would also shave his head.

Patrick and his family were invited to meet with the Bushes. Patrick, he added, is now 10, and doing well.

“That was a selfless act,” said LaPointe. “What I admired most about President Bush was his humility.”

Becker read from speeches Barbara Bush made that stressed selflessness and tolerance.

“We need her voice right now,” said Becker.

In the audience was UNE sophomore Mya Hankes. a communications and English major who was among those invited to have lunch with Becker earlier in the day.

“We sat and talked about the book and the Bush family in general,” said Hankes, who described the former president as “a wonderful humanist.”

Becker said her boss’s mantra was “faith, family and friends,” and serving others, and recited his 10 pieces of advice: “Don’t get down when life hands you challenges; don’t blame others for your setbacks; when things go well, always give credit to others; don’t talk all the time, listen; don’t brag about yourself, let others point out your virtues; give someone else a hand; no one likes an overbearing bigshot; as you succeed, be kind; don’t be afraid to cry; and say your prayers.”

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