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Americans Pay Their Respects To Former President George H.W. Bush At Nation's Capitol


At the U.S. Capitol, visitors are saying goodbye to President George H.W. Bush, whose casket now lies in the rotunda. A funeral service for the 41st president will take place tomorrow at Washington National Cathedral. In a moment, we'll hear from one of the president's sons about his favorite childhood memory of his father. First, here's NPR's Don Gonyea, who was at the Capitol today, hearing the memories of people, including some who traveled quite far to pay their respects in person.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: For most, it was personal - some small detail, something they could relate to about this president. Sue Ellen Wheatley was here with her sister. She came in from Delaware to honor Bush and his wife, Barbara, who passed away earlier this year. She described them in familial terms.

SUE ELLEN WHEATLEY: I saw him and Barbara as the parents of my generation. And he was just a wonderful person and just someone to be so respected. He just set such a standard for the entire country.

GONYEA: It was chilly outside the Capitol this morning. A line of people waited to get inside. Others emerged from the building after paying their respects, among them 75-year-old John Fawcett, a retired federal employee. His emotions crept up on him as he spoke.

JOHN FAWCETT: George Bush was a fantastic leader, and I had the greatest respect for him. And I just wanted to say goodbye.

GONYEA: What was it like in there?

FAWCETT: Very dignified, very solemn and respectful.

GONYEA: But there were some who were only just learning the details of the life of George H.W. Bush. Grace Rector is a 19-year-old student from Los Angeles. She attends Georgetown University in D.C. and came by with a friend. She wasn't even born when Bush was in the White House.

GRACE RECTOR: I've heard a lot of things from my family, and I thought this was a fabulous opportunity to take part in a historic moment.

GONYEA: I asked her what she thought of Bush's later years when he did charitable work but also had high-profile fun like going skydiving in his 80s.

RECTOR: Wow. If I was 85 jumping out of an airplane, I would - OK, now I completely respect him. I was on the edge, but now...

GONYEA: There were Republicans and Democrats and independents in this line. One word came up often when they talked about the late president - civility. That's why 48-year-old freelance writer, producer DeForrest Mapp, a Democrat, was there today.

DEFOREST MAPP: George Bush represents the first opportunity that I had to vote. Even though I did not vote for him, he is part of what I believe a president should be.

GONYEA: And there was another thing I saw a lot of in that line - military veterans who came to salute their former commander in chief one last time, like 55-year-old Kenneth Hawkins of Maryland.

KENNETH HAWKINS: I served during the first Gulf War when he was president. And it's just an honor to pay him homage just like I did Senator McCain. I did the same thing for him as well because we're all combat veterans.

GONYEA: Hawkins says he comes from a family of Democrats and that he switched his party affiliation to Republican to vote for Bush in 1992. He jokes that the conversion didn't last. He now says he's an independent voter. He adds that he loves the fact that Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton became good friends after both were no longer president.

HAWKINS: It doesn't matter what party you're from. You can be friends and talk across the aisles and help each other for what's good for America.

GONYEA: Finally, a group from Mount Pleasant, Mich - Tom Creuger and Patrick Birgy, both military veterans and friends. They piled into their car at 9 p.m. last night with four sons 10 and under in tow. They drove 10 straight hours to say goodbye to a president and to share time together. After emerging from the rotunda, Birgy described their next stops.

PATRICK BIRGY: We're going to leave here, and we're going to go walk down the Washington Mall, and we're going to see, you know, the Vietnam Memorial, Washington Monument. We're going to make our way to the White House eventually. And we're going to try to give them a history lesson along the way.

GONYEA: He hopes the kids will remember this trip with their dads to see a former president and that that, too, will be a small part of George H.W. Bush's legacy. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.