Through triumphs and tragedies, a world war, and four years in the White House, the former first couple’s love for each other not only endured but grew stronger with time.
George reflected on their decades-long romance in a collection of letters published in 1999, writing: “You have given me joy that few men know.”
“I have climbed perhaps the highest mountain in the world, but even that cannot hold a candle to being Barbara’s husband,” he wrote, according to the Associated Press.
In a recent interview with the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Barbara said her husband “has given me the world. He is the best — thoughtful and loving,” she said, according to Glamour. “I am still old and still in love with the man I married 72 years ago.”
It all began at a Christmas dance in 1941, when Barbara Pierce, a publisher’s daughter from Rye who was going to school in South Carolina, was 16 and George, a naval aviator in training, was 17. It was love at first sight when George spotted Barbara, in a green and red holiday dress, from across the room and asked a friend to introduce them.
“Since I didn’t waltz, we sat the dance out. And several more after that, talking and getting to know each other,” George wrote in his autobiography, according to Newsweek. “It was a storybook meeting.”
After a year and a half of dating, George proposed in August 1943 — right before he was deployed to serve in World War II as a Navy pilot, Brides.com reported. George named three of his Navy planes after his sweetheart, including a torpedo bomber called “Barbara.”
Poppy and Bar, their nicknames for each other, bridged the gap between them by writing overseas love letters.
In one letter dated Dec. 12, 1943, George wrote to his “darling Bar” about how happy he was to read their engagement announcement in the newspaper.
“I love you, precious, with all my heart and to know that you love me means my life. How often I have thought about the immeasurable joy that will be ours someday. How lucky our children will be to have a mother like you,” said the letter, which was shared by historians after Barbara’s death.
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George’s plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean on Sept. 2, 1944, but he soon returned home to marry Barbara on Jan. 6, 1945.
“I married the first man I ever kissed,” Barbara once said, according to CBS News. “When I tell this to my children, they just about throw up.”
After having their first son, George W. Bush, the family packed up and moved to Texas, where they soon welcomed son Jeb and daughter Pauline, known as Robin.
In 1953, tragedy struck when Robin was diagnosed with leukemia and died after a seven-month battle.
USA Today reporter Susan Page, who is writing a new biography of Barbara Bush, told The Washington Post that the tragic loss “tested” Bushes’ marriage but ultimately “made it stronger.”
The couple went on to have three more children together: Neil, Marvin and Dorothy. George has described Barbara as “the mainstay” of their family, “the parent who was always there to help solve the daily problems and emergencies of teen and preteen life.”
In the 1970s, while George was serving as CIA director, he stood by Barbara as she went through a bout of depression. “Night after night, George held me weeping in his arms while I tried to explain my feelings,” she once recalled, according to Business Insider. “I almost wonder why he didn’t leave me.”
The couple carried their sense of devotion to the White House, where they served as president and first lady from 1989 to 1993.
John Sununu, the White House chief of staff under former President Bush, tells PEOPLE, “When we in the White House thought of them, we thought of them as a team. Although she didn’t make her presence known in the White House, it was obvious to all of us that the president relied on her, listened to her advice, and considered her an important part of the process he went through on all the tough decisions.”
“This is a couple that married young, stayed in love through their whole life,” Sununu adds.
Looking back on their more than fifty years together in her 1994 memoir, Barbara wrote that she and her husband were “the two luckiest people in the world.”
“And when all the dust is settled and all the crowds are gone, the things that matter are faith, family, and friends. We have been inordinately blessed, and we know that,” she continued.
The pair gave thanks for their blessings — and for each other — every single night, according to granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager.
On Monday, one day before Barbara’s death, Jenna revealed that her grandfather still said “I love you, Barbie” to his wife every night before going to sleep.
In his first public statement since his wife’s passing, the former president said Wednesday: “I always knew Barbara was the most beloved woman in the world, and in fact I used to tease her that I had a complex about that fact.
“But the truth is the outpouring of love and friendship being directed at The Enforcer is lifting us all up,” Bush, 93, continued. “We have faith she is heaven, and we know life will go on — as she would have it. So cross the Bushes off your worry list.”