When Faith Lights the Way
Powerful Story of Ordinary People Who Faced Impossible Obstacles to Save Hundreds of Lives
A life-giving electric system in Liberia saving lives and why it’s a work in progress
Ten years ago, after fourteen years of civil war, Liberia was ravaged and poverty-stricken. One casualty of the war was the Ganta Hospital, which was struggling without electricity while trying to rebuild. The dedicated hospital staff worked hard to serve 24,000 patients a year, but surgeons were typically forced to finish operations with flashlights in their mouths, often without anesthesia equipment.
Steve Vincent was a successful Texas businessman with decades of experience working with U.S. electric power systems. When the United Methodist Committee on Relief asked him to help bring electricity to Ganta Hospital, he said “yes”...beginning a journey that would start him on his true God-given purpose in life - and continues today.
In When Faith Lights the Way: The Quest to Restore Electricity to a War-Ravaged African Hospital, Steve tells the story of the team he assembled to bring light to Ganta Hospital, and how he and those who accompanied him were forever changed by the social and human experiences of living and working in Liberia.
Ten years after that first trip to Liberia, Steve has redirected his efforts toward providing state of the art electric systems to the neediest people in the world to improve their health and education through his organization Power From the SON. But it was his first career that made this unique contribution to mankind possible.
As Steve says, “Why us? Why now? All the Power From The SON team were given talents. Had we been in school all our lives, until the Teacher decided our training was complete? When we were properly prepared, did he call us to step out of our boats to serve him by helping to provide the gift of electricity? Is that the way all of us should live our lives, experiencing and educating ourselves in preparing to do the impossible when God says, ‘It is time, I will be with you?’”
Steve Vincent was a successful businessman whose first career spanned thirty-four years in the electric utility industry. In his second career, his efforts have been redirected to provide state of the art electric systems to improve the health and education to the neediest people in the world. Steve’s extensive experience in logistics while working with U.S. electric power systems has made this unique contribution to mankind possible. Steve has a Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering from Texas A&M University.
- Where did you grow up /live now?
My family could easily have been the model for the Cleavers on the Leave it to Beaver television show, except it was just Dad, Mom, and me. The year after I was born in 1951, my parents purchased a house in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas—not in the upscale part of Oak Cliff, but in the more spartan Dallas Park area. The small homes there were constructed during World War II to provide housing for workers at the North American factory, which built B-24 bombers like the ones my dad flew. My mother was a full-time mom until I reached junior high, when she took a job in circuit-board assembly. A year later she became the Court Clerk for the City of Cockrell Hill, Texas.
My early life was filled with school, scouting, football, baseball, and lots of boy stuff. Scouting was big part of my childhood and my character development. I acquired many arrow points and achieved Eagle Scout level, the God and Country award, and the Order of the Arrow award, granted to scouts who best lived the Scout Oath and Laws.
My football career really isn’t worth mentioning except in the ways it shaped my character. I started playing in the fifth grade as a running back, and it wasn’t until the eighth grade that it occurred to me I was probably too small to be playing. But I wasn’t going to let my size stop me. Given a chance, I knew I could be a good player. I got that chance one day in practice. When it was my turn to run the ball, I gave it all I had. Coach yelled, “That’s what I want!” I did it over and over again. The result was that I got to start in that week’s game, and it was the only game we didn’t lose that year. All I needed was a chance. I did earn two high school varsity letters in football, but my lack of size for a football player always hindered me in athletics. My football career instilled an attitude of “never give up despite the odds” and a strong belief in myself.
Church or religion was not a big part of my family’s life in my early childhood. We sporadically visited churches but did not attend regularly until our Cub Scout Pack parents invited us to Irwindell United Methodist Church in Dallas. Irwindell UMC was a small, warm church family that became our church home. I played on the church softball team and sang in the youth choir. Irwindell UMC parents looked after all the kids, not just their own, and at times they disciplined all of us, too.
My personal growth and choices in life probably have more to do with the influence of Irwindell UMC than I realize. I learned the traditional Southern values of love of God and country and the importance of glorifying God.
My parents were both handy, and I learned to be, too. We did all the upkeep of our modest eight-hundred—eventually expanded to eleven-hundred—square-foot house. There was always a project that kept me pretty busy at home. My dad and I, with help from the neighbors, put on a new roof after a hailstorm. We painted our house inside and out several times. Our house didn’t have a concrete driveway, so my family poured one. We installed “swamp coolers” to cool the house, but later changed them out for wall-mounted air conditioners. I learned quite a lot from working with my dad and mom all those years.
With my extracurricular activities and home projects, we didn’t have the time or money to be world travelers. But we did like to explore the scenic treasures and historical landmarks closer to home. Travel in our family consisted of loading up the car and driving to exciting places around Texas, like the beach in Galveston, Garner State Park in Uvalde, the Battleship Texas in Houston, and the Alamo. Once we ventured out of state to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
When I turned sixteen, I got a part-time job with the City of Cockrell Hill, where my mother worked. Cockrell Hill is a small town, only one square mile, surrounded by Dallas. That summer was filled with new, exciting adventures. David Thompson, a friend, and fellow Cub Scout, got a job there, too, so it was a lot of fun. Our work crew was three full-time and three summer employees who were black, Hispanic and white. I read water meters, learned to drive and operate a tractor with a front-end loader and a backhoe, operated a jackhammer, picked up garbage, and drove the six-gear, manual-transmission dump truck. I spread asphalt and tar for road repair jobs.
The city employees were so resourceful and innovative, and they could reason out solutions that were not taught in school. They worked hard in all kinds of weather situations. They were humble and proud of the job they did. They were always there for each other—a band of brothers. My experience working and bonding with those guys would influence my attitude toward people. We are all children of God. No one is superior or inferior. Education level, money, color, or sex don’t matter. Heart matters.
During my senior year in high school, a friend and fellow Scout, Delman Alsabrook, was injured in a car accident when he was thrown from a car. He was in a coma for weeks. David Thompson and I wanted to help his family any way that we could. We came up with the idea to coordinate a team of friends to be on hand to take care of any chore the family needed to be done. Within the first week, we had over three hundred volunteers.
Perhaps that was the moment when service to others became a part of the person I was growing into. These kinds of actions and decisions are defining moments, or “fork in the river” moments. I had no way to know that the decision to serve and uplift Delman’s family in such a meaningful way would be repeated a few times in my lifetime, and at an even greater scale.
The first time I moved from the house where I was born was when I went to school at Texas A&M University. After four years of dorm living, I graduated and went to work for Allis Chalmers. I was only with them about nine months but moved to Houston, Pittsburg, and finally Gadsden, Alabama. My dream job suddenly was available with Priester Supply in Arlington, Texas and I jumped at the opportunity. I lived in Arlington for forty-three years, retiring there.
Currently, my wife and I live in Bryan, Texas, which is almost touching the campus of Texas A&M University. This is an ideal place for us to be just the right distance from our two daughters and two grandchildren who live in Houston.
- Do you have kids and/or pets?
My wife Linda and I have been married for forty years and are fortunate to have two wonderful daughters, two equally wonderful sons-in-law, and grandchildren anyone would be proud to call their own.
Linda and I have a sixteen-year-old Labrador Retriever named Jedi. When the whole family gets together, there is a pack of three Labradors and a mixed Hound - Australian Cattle Dog. It is chaos.
- When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? Or what first inspired you to write?
Writing When Faith Lights the Way was possibly more difficult for me than electrifying an African Hospital that was devastated by war. I was educated as an engineer, and my career was in engineering sales. I grazed the edge of writing the times when writing sales proposals and presentations.
I was inspired to write by the people who would come up to me after hearing the presentation on electrifying this hospital that was on a piece of land equal to 781 football fields. “What a great and inspiring story! You should write a book!” was said over and over by people after hearing the story.
To me, so many miraculous things helped us do our work. We were just ordinary people who followed that voice inside. The voice inside convinced me that telling the story might someone else to start on their quest.
- Where/When do you best like to write?
- Do you have any interesting writing habits or superstitions?
- When you are struggling to write/have writer’s block, what are some ways that help you find your creative muse again?
- What do you think makes a good story? I love stories about people that gave their all and defied the odds. Stories about the brave people in World War II that saved us, explorers that stretched our world when others were afraid, or never say quit inventors that make our world a better place.
- Is there a message/theme in your book that you want readers to grasp? Within each of us, there is a quest. A quiet voice that encourages us to stretch our limits. All of us are ordinary people, but some follow this voice and great things result.
When Faith Lights the Way is the story of average people, facing impossible obstacles, who kept focused on their calling. Its purpose is to encourage and inspire you to follow your passion and purpose.
- Have you won any awards or honors (not just for writing)?
I am an Eagle Scout and received the God and Country Award, and the Order of the Arrow award. Three years ago, I received the Rotarian of the Year award.
But I am most proud of the award I received this year. The honor was from Deron Johnson, the past President of the Aggie Salvation Army, a student organization. The times we were together were few, but he always exuded confidence and respect. His demeanor gives me confidence that he can take care of ANY situation efficiently, compassionately, and correctly. Deron has demonstrated his passion in service to others through his work in the Aggie Salvation Army, but other impressive service includes two tours in Afghanistan, graduation from Texas A&M, has been commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the Marine Corps, and on to pilot training in Virginia.
As he received his Second Lieutenant commission, Deron awarded me his collar pin of his previous rank. I am told it is a sign of respect for someone who has had a positive influence on their life. I am honored and humbled by someone who gives us all hope for the future.
If your book was turned into a movie, who would you like to play the main characters? My choice to play me in the movie When Faith Lights the Way is Robert Taylor who played Sheriff Walt Longmire in the Netflix series Longmire. Even though he was born in Australia, he completely transforms into a resourceful, roughhewn but educated, introspective man
The morning started at a cool seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit, but the temperature had risen to about eighty-five before the rainstorm passed through. During the storm, the temperature dropped back to a chilly seventy-three. But the benefit of the brief, cooling rain did not last long. Now, the sun was totally in control again and had driven the temperature back up to almost ninety in both operating rooms. It was so sticky the scrubs of the dedicated operating crew were soaked, and streams of sweat were running down their eyeglasses.
One operating room was becoming bearable because a nurse had started the small portable gasoline generator that powered the air-conditioning. For those working in the other operating room, there was no such luck; there was no second generator. The surgeons had been halfway through a difficult childbirth when the storm blew in. The electrical system went out as the storm knocked loose a wire nailed to a palm tree. These storms were an everyday occurrence, dumping an inch or more of rain then leaving the sun to bake out all the moisture. That’s just the way it was in Ganta, Liberia, at the start of the six-month-long rainy season. Ganta is in Sub-Saharan Africa, five hundred miles from the equator and two hundred miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.
In the operating room where the childbirth was taking place, the team broke out battery-powered flashlights and held them in their mouths—the most effective way to see where one was working and have both hands free. The heat grew unbearable. “Raise the windows. We have got to have a breeze in here, or one of us, the mother, or the baby won’t make it,” a surgeon said.
Both operations finished about the same time. Dr. Willicor had been working on one case after another since the early morning. A Liberian and a dedicated, gifted surgeon, Dr. Willicor had been the chief medical officer at Ganta United Methodist Hospital since the facility reopened in 2004, after the war. “Meet me at seven-thirty tonight,” he told his administrative staff as he walked down the hall past the line of patients.
After the storm passed, one of the men from the hospital’s electric department climbed a ladder twelve feet up, to where palm fronds emerged, and nailed the wire back onto the trunk.
As Dr. Willicor addressed the group that night at the meeting, the anemic electricity allowed only a brownish white glow to emanate from the few lights in the room. “As you all know,” he began, “this is the only hospital serving the 450,000 people in Nimba County. This hospital was a magnificent gift to the people until thirteen years of civil war virtually destroyed it. We’ve been open three years now since the war ended, and we have to keep improving. We work around the clock and see about twenty-four thousand patients a year. We don’t have air-conditioning. Some days it’s so hot that we have to raise the windows, and that introduces contamination. We don’t have enough light to see what we are doing. Again, electricity. We don’t have a method to ensure our instruments are sterilized because we don’t have adequate electricity.
“I walk by patients involved in horrible accidents, people with internal injuries, patients with diseases. Some could be helped by modern medicine; we can only make them comfortable. We don’t even have an x-ray machine, and it wouldn’t work if we did. Not with this meager electricity.
“We can’t use machines to administer adequate general anesthesia. All we have are techniques that the medical community moved on from at the turn of the twentieth century. The drugs we have available are commonly used to anesthetize animals, and they present unacceptable and unsafe side effects in people. Except in rare instances, it isn’t prudent to work on patients unless a spinal anesthetic will suffice. I understand a team is coming from Texas next year that includes an anesthesiologist, Dr. Stegall. He is bringing a portable anesthesia machine used by veterinarians on small animals that we can use while he is here. That will be a big improvement, but it’s temporary. We need modern anesthesia machines to help more patients, but the machines require quality electricity to operate.
“We have so many problems, but dependable electricity would save so many lives. We need to talk to the bishop and see what can be done.”
All along the sides of the road, I saw skeletons of abandoned cars and trucks. Sometimes it was just the rusting frame of the car; sometimes all that was left of a burned car—maybe remnants of the war. Some had not been on the roadside for long, like one truck I vividly remember. The truck had a broken front axle, its nose buried deep in the mud. The thing was beaten up and old, resembling some once-majestic animal that had grown haggard with the scars of many fights. It seemed as if this great animal had been rushing at something or someone and had been shot midcharge, its front legs buckling and its face burying itself in the mud as it died. All around, people were unloading what was salvageable, stripping the meat from its bones and leaving the skeleton to decay. Printed under the windshield in yellow letters was the name of the truck: “God Will Provide.”
What an experience to ride the Monrovia-to-Ganta Highway. The wonders, previously only available to me in books and magazines and on television, were repeated over and over. The only major towns we passed through were Kakata and Gbarnga. Kakata was the location of a technical school, Booker T. Washington, which marked the educational path of many well-known Liberians. Vibrant, intelligent people graduated from this school, like the former United Methodist bishop and former vice president of Liberia, Bennie Dee Warner, who would become a close friend in the coming years, as well as the Liberian ambassador to the United States, Jeremiah Sulunteh.
About halfway to Ganta, two and a half hours into the trip, we stopped at the CooCoo-Nest Café outside Totota. After our long ride, all of us needed to use the facilities. Chris and I were beginning to feel a little more comfortable in this strange land, so we opened the front door of the store and went inside. It was dark because there was no electricity, but in time, our eyes adjusted and we could see. As the darkness gave way to obscure vision, we quickly made our way to the bathroom. The restroom was small and stained with years and years of no running water. There was a small window that let in some fresh air, but since there was no window pane, the rain had poured in, bringing with it dirt and muck. Like almost everywhere in Liberia, we had to use a bucket to flush the toilet. Bathrooms like this do not exist in the United States. It was gross, and it smelled; I had the sensation of herds of germs jumping from everywhere to attack me. Wandering back into the store proper, we all decided to have a Coke. We each paid our dollar and went outside and sat on the porch, where there was at least a little breeze blowing. There was a large building across the road that looked like an abandoned 1960s hotel. Victor told us it was once an amusement park with waterfalls, swimming pools, and kids’ outdoor playground equipment, built by former President Tubman, whose “getaway” mansion wasn’t far away. Victor told us one of the properties even had a zoo. During the wars, all the animals in the zoo and all the other animals, domestic and wild, were killed for food. It was sad to think what Liberia was like before the wars and what it had become. Liberia had the highest standard of living in Africa before the wars. The instigators of the wars were willing to destroy everything to possess the power to force their will on the people of Liberia instead of effecting change through the law. How many lives were forever destroyed by the desire for power?
Moving across the road, we passed the hospital and walked north on the dirt road. As we walked, we heard a truck engine. We moved to the side of the road as two trucks painted white with the UN letters on the door approached where we were standing. One truck appeared to be a tanker.
“What’s the deal?” we asked. “Who are they, and what are they doing?”
Sue replied, “That’s the local UNMIL Peacekeepers, going to our lake to draw water for their camp. They do that about every other day.” A plan bloomed in the back of my mind as I stared at those tankers. I replied that I sure would like to talk to them when they came back.
We kept on walking up the hill, looking around, then started back down the hill about the time the UN trucks returned, loaded with water. Sue flagged them down and introduced me, and I started my sales pitch. I told them who we were and what we were trying to accomplish, and I asked if they had equipment that might help us unload two containers. They radioed the camp, discussed it with their superiors, and said one of their majors would be available at ten o’clock to meet with us. He would come to visit us on the crest of a hill, close to an abandoned girls’ dormitory.
Before ten, we saw two UN trucks pull up to the spot where we had been told the meeting would take place with the representative of the UNMIL battalion stationed in Ganta. A gaggle of soldiers in camouflage uniforms and blue UN baseball caps piled out of the trucks, unloaded a bunch of equipment and material, and began to work like frenzied ants erecting two tents. On one tent, the army-green canvas formed a triangle with the ends open. Tables and other equipment were loaded inside, and this became the outpost during the meeting for the soldiers that did the tent erection.
The other tent structure was for our meeting. The soldiers placed a waterproof brown tarp on the ground and then made a lean-to structure. Three sides were open, with a green canvas roof over our heads and more canvas covering the remaining side. The lean-to made me feel like I was looking out a big picture window. They placed a plastic table and chairs inside.
At ten o’clock Major Touhidul (Touhid) Islam arrived with a driver and escort. Major Islam was a tall, well-proportioned man in his thirties, who exuded a military demeanor. Our group consisted of our new German friends, LiZa and Wulle, and the whole Power From the SON team, excluding Frank and Pinkie. Major Islam took a chair at the head of the table, and the two soldiers who had arrived with him in his vehicle stood at attention behind him. They didn’t speak a word. We were invited to the meeting room tent and offered a chair, some candy from Bangladesh, and water. All my life I’ve been mesmerized by military movies, and this made me feel like I was in one. What an adrenaline rush. I chose to stand, as I felt I could be more effective by pacing. We exchanged small talk and then got down to the purpose of the summit. The PFS team and I explained who we were, why we were there, and how we were going to accomplish our mission. We thanked them for their help with the trenching, but we said we needed one more thing from them. We needed help with something that would save our project.
We described the transformers in the containers and our need for some mechanized equipment to unload the units and distribute them around the UMC campus. To my surprise and elation, Major Islam, very fluent in English, let us know that he would carry our request back to his commanding officer. He didn’t offer any hints about the availability of the equipment we desperately needed, though. The meeting lasted maybe thirty minutes, and he said he would get back with us. The major and his two aides left; the rest of the soldiers broke down the temporary camp, loaded everything, and left in their trucks.
Soon after the major left, Barbara Tutton received a cell phone call from the Bangladeshis. Apparently, we were invited to come to their compound at one that afternoon, to discuss our inquiry for equipment. At about 12:45, we loaded into the SUVs and headed for the UNMIL complex located on the southern outskirts of town. The soldiers at the entry gate checked to confirm we had an appointment, and as we drove to the parking area, we got excited. They had all kinds of equipment needed to make our project a reality. We just had to convince them to help us.
When we arrived, we parked by a well-maintained portable building and were guided up the stairs into the entry of a large meeting room. Ah, air-conditioning. The room was immaculate white, with chairs along the wall and a large TV. The room was filled with officers enjoying a World Cup football match. We were introduced and began to work the room as if at a cocktail party. The drinks were not cocktails, but the same sweet and tasty light yellow fruit juice we’d been served by the major earlier that morning. I was steered by Major Islam to enjoy light conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Md Nurul Huda, the unit commander.
Colonel Huda asked if we would be interested in being their guests for dinner, and of course we were pleased to accept the invitation. Colonel Huda was trim, in his forties, and a little shorter than five-nine— my height. He was distinguished looking and very much a refined gentleman, as were all the Bangladeshi officers.
The first course, dessert, was the same candy we’d enjoyed with Major Islam: a petite, soft, sweet morsel that gave the meeting a genteel atmosphere. After dessert, enlisted personnel came into the room and set up tables in a U shape. The UNMIL officers sat on the left side of the U, Colonel Huda and I sat in the middle, and the Power From the SON crew and those from the mission sat on the right side. It was a delicious meal, very Mediterranean, consisting of kebabs and rice.
During dinner, the colonel asked me about our request for help from his unit. I described how we needed a forklift or crane to unload and transport the transformers. I gave him a short history of the hospital, including how badly it was damaged during the war, the number of patients they treat, and how the poor electricity affected the treatment and recovery of the patients. He listened politely without saying a word, and then he asked where all the material came from.
“We had it sent on two containers from the United States,” I said.
“Who paid for the equipment?” was his next question.
I told him some was donated by individuals and companies in the United States, and some was paid for by Power From the SON.
“Who pays these men?” was his final question.
“They are not getting paid. They are volunteering their time. This is our gift to try to help these suffering people.”
There was a short pause. Lieutenant Colonel Md Nurul Huda asked for attention from the group. He looked at his soldiers and said very convincingly, “Gentlemen, you will do everything you can, as long as it does not interfere with your regular duties, to help Power From the SON complete their work!”
All the UNMIL officers seemed to have cameras on them, for they retrieved these immediately and began taking pictures of the happy occasion. After this was over, we all went outside together to look at the equipment on site and take a lot of pictures in front of the equipment, with our arms around our new best friends.
Cables needed to be laid under the paved road that bisected Ganta Mission and Hospital from the main highway between Monrovia and Guinea. We were going to cut a four-foot-deep trench through the road, stopping traffic and causing chaos.
During the planning session at BANENGR-11 headquarters, the Power From the SON team and the engineers from BANENGR-11 agreed there was no way to cut one side, do the work, and then cut the other side. There wasn’t time to argue with the police. We needed to cut the whole road at one time to keep on schedule. Power From the SON and BANENGR-11 agreed we would just do it and take the consequences. We planned to complete the task in one hour. The hospital and mission people weren’t too keen on the decision but reluctantly agreed to go along. “Forward the Fight!” as The Salvation Army says.
PFS was on the hill overlooking the road at 6:30 a.m. when the Bangladeshis arrived with their huge excavator. They had several vehicles, including the ragtop personnel carrier filled with a cadre of armed soldiers dressed in bulletproof vests and helmets. Everyone involved knew their assignment, a necessity to complete the job in a single hour.
We were ready and in position at 6:50 a.m. 7:00 came and went. There were no police to direct traffic. At 7:30 Barbara headed to Ganta on the back of a motorcycle to get the police. At 8:15 or so, she arrived with a policeman. He would not come unless Barbara gave him forty dollars. There went my unwavering stand on bribery. I felt my footing slip on the loose rocks of the moral high ground. I quickly decided that I needed to focus on the bigger issue at hand.
The policeman directed traffic, and UNMIL began to cut the road. The excavator began digging a deep trench on one side of the road as traffic was routed to the other side. When the excavator finished one side of the road, he moved to the other side and began to cut that side as well. That’s when people got excited. The policeman went into orbit. He jumped all over Barbara, saying there was no way for the traffic to pass. He was right. Cars and trucks on both sides of the road were at a dead stop. Our PFS team, the Ganta UMC electric department’s men, and the soldiers moved into the ditch and began leveling the bottom and throwing out rocks as the excavator dug up the other side of the road.
I was standing on the side of the road with Major Touhid, on a hill forty feet above the action, with two armed soldiers on each side of us. Below, a riot was about to break out. The motorcycle riders with their passengers were racing up the hill into the hospital property and jumping our four-foot-wide trenches, but the trucks and cars were stuck. A crowd of about a hundred people was being held against their will. One car, transporting two Australians who had been in Africa for two months, was on its way to Monrovia so the Aussies could catch a flight back home. They jumped up and down and shouted at the policeman, who had basically given up.
I felt safe beside Touhid and the soldiers. I told them, “I’m glad I’m here with you guys and your weapons, in case I’m attacked.” Touhid continued to stare at the scene below, with its chaotic motorcycles and angry people. He said with a sly smile, “We are Peacekeepers. We can only respond to people that attack us first. If they attack you, we can only watch and report the incident.”
The trench was cut across the entire road, the pipe laid in, and the concrete sacks stacked on the pipe. The excavator covered up the ditch and packed the road. Traffic was released, and the road returned to normal. It had taken us fifty minutes. We were impressed with our planning and execution, not to mention the fact that a team from the United States, electricians from both sides of the road, and a group of soldiers from Bangladesh had worked together efficiently.
Working with the Bangladesh military was a treat in many ways. Their professionalism as a military unit, their work ethic, their humanitarian response, and their cultural traditions were such a joy for us to experience. Especially the daily tea break. Almost every morning and afternoon at ten o’clock and two o’clock, the ragtop personnel vehicle would pull up beside the guesthouse in a shady spot, and two soldiers would jump out and set up a plastic table and several chairs. Touhid and one of the other majors would have hot tea in white cups, with water and dessert. Power From the SON personnel were usual attendees at tea, as were Sue, Barbara, LiZa, and Wulle. Frequently, I was away working somewhere else on the property, and someone would come get me to join them for tea. The conversation centered around life in our respective homes. The event added civility, where six years earlier, there had been none.
In 2008 Linda and I took the “trip of a lifetime.” A trip to China and the Far East. Former President George H. W. Bush and First Lady Barbara were on board; the President was part of a lecture series on board the cruise ship.
Linda and I arrived on deck and went to the rail to take in the view (of Hong Kong harbor). As we moved around, mesmerized, we ended up leaning on the rail about twenty feet apart. Both of us, out of the corner of our eye, noticed a tall, solitary man fill the space between us. It was President Bush! We both stood frozen for a moment, then simultaneously both slinked back away from the rail and stood against one of the ship’s bulkheads. What were we supposed to do? It would have been different if we’d been in a line to meet him, or were expecting him, but there he was by himself, no secret service, just enjoying the view—just like we were trying to do!
As we huddled against the wall, our sanity and courage began to return. President George H. W. Bush was here because he wanted to be, wasn’t he? He’s just like anyone else and would be happy to meet new people in a casual setting, wouldn’t he? He probably thinks we are stuck up or something since we just walked away, I thought. I figured we should say something to him. But what? Suddenly a great idea came to me. Bush is a graduate of Yale University but had adopted Texas A&M University as his academic home. His library is located there, and he goes to all types of sporting events. We had even heard that when he and his wife, Barbara, were staying in their apartment at the Bush Library, Barbara would come out into the public areas and meet and greet people who are there for conferences. I thought of a clever line. We collected our cool and walked over to him.
“Mr. President,” I said. “I want to thank you for all you do for Texas A&M University.”
“Why thank you!” he replied, greeting me with a firm handshake. “Do you work there?” he asked.
“No, sir. I’m a former student.” Texas Aggies are always former students. You’re never an ex-Aggie. Once an Aggie, always an Aggie.
He looked at Linda. “Are you a former student?”
“No,” replied Linda. “I went to that other school in Austin.”
He smiled and laughed. “That’s okay. My granddaughters are going to school there. It’s a great school!” His smile turned to a frown as he grabbed my hand and pulled me close. “I am worried about our basketball team. They should be doing better!”
I don’t remember how we closed the conversation because I was too surprised. Bush was as genuine as our friends in Arlington, Texas. He was a real person.
During this very brief encounter, he welcomed me as an equal and taught me that rich, famous, and powerful people can be as normal as you or I. President Bush gave me the courage to reach out to anyone when trying to help others.
from the Western United States.