Former first lady Laura Bush on Tuesday told an audience of more than 800 art supporters that literacy has been a guiding passion in her life.
“I believe that every child in America should learn to read,” she said. “I believe that literacy is an essential foundation for democracy.”
Bush spoke at the Taubman Museum of Art’s Women’s Luncheon, and though she didn’t say a lot about the visual arts during her speech, her presence before the full house at the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center denoted a great day for the museum.
Her appearance raised $225,000 for the Taubman. Last year’s luncheon at the museum raised $40,000.
Museum executive director Della Watkins said that $225,000 “will sustain us for many months.” The money will go toward education programs and new exhibitions.
About 100 Taubman members who didn’t pay the $135 to hear Bush in person watched her speech from the museum’s black box theater via a live video stream.
“I think the people of Virginia’s Blue Ridge are delighted that Mrs. Bush took the time to come,” Watkins said. “She’s a fellow educator. She’s strongly supporting women’s rights. She’s a natural fit for our luncheon.”
Opening with a lighthearted update on the latest activities of her famous family members, Bush shared that her household now includes a budding artist — her husband, former President George W. Bush.
“George has taken up painting,” she said. “He’s actually pretty good, for an amateur.”
She gave a succinct account — sometimes funny, sometimes moving — of her time in the White House and how those events led her to espouse the causes she pursues as leader of the Women’s Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas.
One of her first accomplishments as first lady was to help bring about the first National Book Festival, which drew 30,000 people. “It was a thrill for me to bring writers and readers together,” she said.
That festival happened Sept. 8, 2001. Three days later, planes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Bush, who had come to the U.S. Capitol to talk to senators about an education program, ended up watching the news unfold in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s offices, while the late senator tried to console her with small talk. She saw her husband later that day in a secure location deep beneath the White House.
“We hugged each other,” she said. Though they were grateful their family members were safe, “all we could think about were the thousands of Americans who couldn’t say the same.”
The terrorist attacks focused the country’s attention on the brutal treatment of Afghan women by the terrorist-sympathetic Taliban. One of the Women’s Initiative programs, the Afghan Women’s Project, shares stories of these women’s struggles. Other programs teach leadership skills to women in Middle Eastern and African countries, and build funding and policy networks with first ladies of other countries.
Women play vital roles in health, education and prosperity worldwide, she said. “When women are educated, their families are healthier and their children are in school.”
The cost of Bush’s visit was covered by the Taubman Foundation for the Arts, created by former president and CEO of Advance Auto Parts Nick Taubman, and his wife, Jenny. The museum is named after the Taubmans, who gave the largest single donation to its $66 million capital campaign before it opened in 2008. Nick Taubman, the museum’s board chairman, also served as U.S. ambassador to Romania during the Bush administration.
Jenny Taubman shared an anecdote about how Laura Bush helped them in their efforts to teach fundraising methods to Romania’s national art museum after the fall of communism.
“She’s always supporting cultural organizations, art museums, anything to do with education,” Jenny Taubman said. “We are very fortunate that she had the time and was able to come” to Roanoke.
Bush’s speech drew a variety of people, including a contingent of Kroger executives from five different states.
“We work for a company that’s very involved in the community,” said Shannon Toth of Raleigh, N.C. She noted that Kroger often sponsors Taubman events. “It’s natural for us to be involved in such a special event.”
Salem resident Annie Lin, a native of Taiwan, arrived wearing a T-shirt displaying the first lady’s picture, an American flag worn like a skirt around her waist, and a hat with white stars in a blue field. She brought a copy of Bush’s book, “Spoken from the Heart.”
Regional arts leaders said they were delighted to see Bush make an appearance in support of the Taubman.
“Any time you can get that kind of power behind the conversation about the importance of the arts, I’m for it,” said Jefferson Center Executive Director Cyrus Pace.
Also at the luncheon, museum officials presented the Ann Fralin Award for support of arts and education to Carilion Clinic President and CEO Nancy Agee. The Art Venture Award for achievement in arts education went to Roanoke County Schools Superintendent Lorraine Lange.