Barbara Bush was much more than 'everybody's grandmother'

Former first lady Barbara Bush attends day two of the Republican National Convention (RNC) at the Xcel Energy Center on September 2, 2008 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The GOP will nominate U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) as the Republican choice for U.S. President on the last day of the convention.
Getty Images

Barbara Bush supported her husband, former President George H.W. Bush, throughout his career, and projected an image as what she herself called "everybody's grandmother."

But she also was an independent spirit, willing to speak her mind, sometimes bluntly, sometimes with the grace of humor. And she raised millions of dollars to fight illiteracy.

For more on Barbara Bush, click here.

Here are some highlights of the former first lady's life.

Grandma's House

First Lady Barbara Bush holding baby while two-year-old child takes photo with a toy camera at hospice for children with AIDS.
John Zich | The LIFE Images Collection | Getty Images

In 1989, when Mrs. Bush became first lady, she visited a center called Grandma's House, one of the United States' first residences dedicated to children diagnosed with HIV.

At the home, she held an infant, kissed a child and hugged an adult with AIDS, The Washington Post reported. "You can hug and pick up AIDS babies and people who have the HIV virus" and not be harmed, she said.

During the time, the AIDS virus was highly misunderstood. According to the Miller Center, Mrs. Bush also urged her husband to increase funding for AIDS programs.

Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy 

First Lady Barbara Bush, sporting her signature pearls, cuddling with a trio of little girls at fete for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy in 1989.
Cynthia Johnson | The LIFE Images Collection | Getty Images

As "second lady" during the Reagan administration, Mrs. Bush focused on raising awareness for literacy. Her son Neil had been living with dyslexia, which motivated her cause.

In 1989, the year she became first lady, Mrs. Bush founded the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

"The American Dream is about equal opportunity for everyone who works hard," she said on the nonprofit's website. "If we don't give everyone the ability to simply read and write, then we aren't giving everyone an equal chance to succeed."

Over nearly three decades, the foundation says, it has raised and provided more than $110 million to support family literacy programs nationwide.

The profits from both of Bush's books about her dogs, "C. Fred's Story" (1984) and "Millie's Book" (1990), were donated to literacy charities. In 1995, Bush received the award for 'Outstanding Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged' from the Jefferson Awards.

White House Endowment Trust 

First Lady Barbara Bush walking through hallway in WH with springer spaniel Millie.
Carol T. Powers | White House | The LIFE Picture Collection | Getty Images

In 1990, Mrs. Bush worked with the White House Historical Association and established the White House Endowment Fund. The fund created a permanent endowment of $25 million that would maintain the public rooms and collections in the White House.

In 2016, the White House Endowment Fund reported more than $54 million in net assets.

Wellesley College commencement speech

US & Soviet 1st Ladies Barbara Bush & Raisa Gorbachev (L) at Wellesley College for graduation exercises featuring Mrs Bush as commencement speaker.
Cynthia Johnson | The LIFE Images Collection | Getty Images

Mrs. Bush's sense of humor helped make her popular, but her selection as a commencement speaker at Wellesley College in 1990 sparked a debate on what defines feminism.

Some 150 students at the 2,200 all-women school signed a petition saying they were "outraged" by the selection.

"Wellesley teaches that we will be rewarded on the basis of our own merit, not on that of a spouse," the petition said. "To honor Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker is to honor a woman who has gained recognition through the achievements of her husband, which contravenes what we have been taught over the last four years at Wellesley.''

The petition prompted President Bush to defend his wife's choice to drop out of Smith College in order to marry him in 1945 and start a family.

Mrs. Bush appeared at the Wellesley commencement, sharing the podium with Soviet first lady Raisa Gorbachev, who had been a college professor.

"Somewhere out in this audience may even be someone who will one day follow in my footsteps, and preside over the White House as the president's spouse," Mrs. Bush told the graduates.

"I wish him well!"

'Barbara Bush: A Memoir' 

First Lady Barbara Bush greets the delegates attending the 1992 Republican Convention before beginning her 19 August 1992 speech. The First Lady said she was making a case for the re-election of 'the strongest , the most decent, most caring, wisest and yes, the healthiest man I know.'
Bob Daemmrich | AFP | Getty Images

In 1994, after she and her husband had left the White House, Mrs. Bush published a memoir. Though she was not known to publicly disagree with her husband's politics, she revealed in her memoir that she was pro-choice, which was in opposition to her husband's platform.

"Let me say again," she wrote. "I hate abortions, but just could not make that choice for someone else. And contrary to the platform plank, which was opposed to all abortions, George was against abortions with the exception of rape, incest and where the life of the mother was threatened."