'First lady saves 'Best for last'

10-02-2008: news-update

By Lauren Donovan
SIMS — First lady Laura Bush visited North Dakota Thursday, making it the 50th of all 50 states visited since her husband took office eight years ago.

She landed in Bismarck aboard a silver 737 with the “United States of America” emblazoned 20 feet high on its side and, looking smaller as all celebrity giants do in person, she descended behind a cordon of black-suited security agents and was greeted by the Bismarck High School marching band and Cathedral School first-graders exuberantly waving and dressed all in red, white and blue.

The children’s handlettered poster put a winning spin on North Dakota’s come-lately status. “Best for last,” the sign said. In the blue and gold of a warm October morning, crops tucked in the bin, cattle fat in the field and oil and coal yielding good economic times, North Dakota was indeed at its very best.

Bush divided her day on the ground between a picturesque rural church at the end of a Morton County gravel road and Riverside Elementary School in Bismarck. She also was an evening guest at a private, invitation-only reception at the University of Mary and apparently remained overnight, leaving this morning.

The 124-year-old Sims Lutheran Church, originally a parsonage with services upstairs, was restored with funds from a Save America’s Treasures grant, of which Bush is honorary chairwoman. Riverside school is among 75 in the state participating in a Picturing America National Endowment for the Humanities project that provides prints of 40 iconic art works to enhance children’s education.

The tiny church has had visitors in its day, but none to set off such a tizzy of preparation, not to mention requiring intense men with radios wired into their ears positioned all around the church yard.

Waiting in the warm vestibule, killing a wasp, or two, the Rev. VanVechen Crane prepared to greet Bush inside the present-day church.

“It reminds me of when my mother-in-law comes to visit,” he quipped, admitting that a case of nerves had left him sleepless the night before.

Bush, dressed simply in a rose tweed suit, exhibited a warm curiosity, asking questions about the church and the people she met there.

The smells of a typical Lutheran potluck wafted through the church and downstairs, Bush shook hands with the 40 or so congregants and joined them for a few minutes, resting on a bench at a table already filled with church members.

Sitting among them, a plate of pie and a cup of coffee in front of her, Bush called the church “America’s story,” the kind that embodies “the values that make America so strong.”

She thanked members of Preservation North Dakota who’ve worked on the prairie churches project to restore churches like Sims.

“Good work here,” she told them. “This is terrific.”

At Riverside, Bush helped teacher Sue Weekes teach a fourth-grade history lesson.

Weekes talked to her 15 students about a “Picturing America” print of Gen. George Washington, leading his men across the Delaware River during the Revolutionary War.

The children eagerly talked about what they could see and Bush told them about something they couldn’t.

In the dark and choppy water, on the verge of battle that would decide the fate of an infant country, Washington was “probably afraid. You probably never thought that he was afraid,” she said.

Bush told an audience of Riverside school children and guests, gathered in the gymnasium afterward, that using the art series helps children bridge the past to the future.

State School Superintendent Wayne Sanstead said Bush made it “crystal clear that art really counts in school. This is clearly a neighborhood school that makes a difference.”

(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 1-888-303-5511, or lauren@westriv.com.)