Ten days before Jenna Bush Hager fought through tears to read verses from Proverbs 31 at former first lady Barbara Bush's funeral in Houston, she came to Dallas to share stories of her family and childhood that were both serious and hilarious. Hilarious, because they were delivered with such quick wit and authentic, self-deprecating humor that one couldn't help but wonder if she might have inherited her public speaking skills from the feisty grandmother she affectionately called "Ganny."
The occasion was the Park Cities Historic and Preservation Society's Distinguished Speaker Luncheon held at Brook Hollow Golf Club. Chaired by Tish Key with honorary chairs SMU president R. Gerald Turner and his wife, Gail, the event benefited the organization's scholarships and preservation initiatives.
After a welcome by PCHPS president Lucinda Buford and introductions by emcee Scott Murray, the Highland Park High School Lads and Lassies sang a stirring a capella invocation.
Patrons — including Taylor and Carol Armstrong, Venise and Larry Stuart, Polly and Dan McKeithen, Marla and Mike Boone, Teffy Jacobs, and Jana Paul — dined on grilled chicken salads with fresh spring berries during a special presentation: Highland Park High School principal Walter Kelly presented the first ever PCHPS Distinguished Chair for History award to Bradley J. Sanders, AP European History teacher.
Then it was time for the main event. Journalist Pierce Allman joined Dallas native Hager on stage for a Q&A-style talk that covered personal insights ranging from her first political campaign (a losing bid for student council in 4th grade at Preston Hollow Elementary) to teaching her children to love reading (they're working through the "Junie B. Jones" series now). Many of the stories Hager recalled are told in more detail in her recently released book, Sisters First, which she penned with her twin sister, Barbara Pierce Bush.
Some playful and poignant highlights from her remarks:
On being from a "political dynasty" family: That term is almost laughable, she said. Her family doesn't talk about politics around the dinner table just as a family with doctors doesn't sit around talking about surgery. When her family gets together, they laugh. And they read — a lot. "It was such a weird rumor that my dad didn't read since he is married to a librarian," she said.
On the moment her dad, George W. Bush, told her and Barbara that he planned to run for governor of Texas: "Ann Richards had been a very popular governor," she said. "So we just told my dad he was gonna lose." His response? "If I lose, I have y'all, I have my family," she recalled.
On her courtship with now-husband Henry Hager, and her own dating advice: Sister and co-author Barbara identified eight points in their book "where Henry should have run," she said. The night Jenna thought her boyfriend was proposing in a very public restaurant ended with no proposal from him, an expletive from her, and an embarrassing Washington Post story about it all the next day. The one thing she'd do all over again? Making him wait on their first date. "That's my advice," she said. "Make him wait."
On ghosts at the White House: On two occasions, she heard music coming from the fireplace in her bedroom. The first time it was opera music. The second time, 1920s jazz music — Barbara heard it, too. A White House butler told her he'd experienced all sorts of haunted things there through the years. "Go (to the White House) if you can," she encouraged the audience. "But I don't know if they come out on tours."
On her mom's calming influence: Laura Bush has a unique ability to stay calm in just about any situation, her daughter revealed. Never was that more evident than the morning of Jenna and Henry's 2008 wedding at the family's ranch in Crawford. The former first lady opened the bride's bedroom door to wake her and announced, "a small tornado came through last night, but everything's been taken care of." Her mom's guiding philosophy in raising her daughters was that "we were more important than our worries," she said.
On taking after her dad in one funny way: In one of the most light-hearted moments of her talk, Hager had trouble coming up with the word "insignificant," aiming and missing syllables a few times. Without missing a beat, she declared, "I'm sorry, I take after my dad." She then recalled the time she asked her 4-year-old daughter, Mila, to ask her grandpa what "strategery" is, invoking the most famous made-up word by a president in history.
On the transition from teaching to television: When she taught at-risk kids, the former teacher said, she cared about her students so much that she felt stressed out all the time and even dreamed about them at night. Working as a correspondent for NBC's Today is much easier, she revealed. "Teaching is a much harder job than live television," she said, adding the line that brought the biggest applause of the day: "We don't appreciate our teachers enough in this culture."
On preserving old homes and buildings: Hager and her mother, a Park Cities resident, both are passionate about preserving old homes and buildings. She said that, while on a jaunt around the neighborhood, they're likely to yell out to a home under construction, "Don't tear it down! We don't need one more Snow White's castle in Dallas. They're not organic to the architecture."
With much applause for that last statement, the room gave Hager a standing ovation. As they waited for their cars in the valet line, guests purchased copies of the Bush sisters' book and were pleasantly surprised to find the authors' autographs inside.