Barbara Pierce was born in Flushing, New York. She was raised in the suburban town of Rye, New York. She was the third child of Marvin Pierce (1893–1969), who later became president of McCall Corporation, the publisher of the popular women’s magazines Redbook and McCall’s. Her ancestor Thomas Pierce, an early New England colonist, was also an ancestor of Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States. She is a direct descendant, great great granddaughter, of James Pierce, Jr. who was a fourth cousin of President Franklin Pierce.
Barbara attended Rye Country Day School and later boarding school at Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina. She was very athletic and enjoyed swimming, tennis, and bike riding.
One year, when at home visiting with her family, Barbara attended a prep school Christmas dance at a club in Greenwich, Connecticut. At this dance, when she was only 16 years old, she met her future husband, who was then a senior at the boarding school Phillips Academy Andover. There was an immediate mutual attraction and they began writing to each other. She went as his date to his senior prom. In 1943, at age 18, she became engaged. While she attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, Barbara’s fiancé went off to World War II as a Navy bomber pilot. He named three of his planes after her: Barbara, Barbara II, and Barbara III. Barbara went to work during the summers, first at a Lord & Taylor department store in Greenwich, Connecticut, then at a nuts and bolts factory that provided supplies for the U.S. war effort. While at Smith College, she made the freshman soccer team and served as captain. Two weeks after her fiancé’s return on leave on January 6, 1945, Barbara left college and married him at the First Presbyterian Church in Rye, New York.
For the first eight months of their marriage, Barbara and her husband moved around the Eastern United States, to places including Michigan, Maryland, and Virginia, as her husband’s Navy squadron training required his presence at bases in such states. When the war ended, Barbara’s husband was accepted to Yale. Barbara moved with him to New Haven, Connecticut where she worked at the college campus store until giving birth to her first child in July of 1946. After Barbara’s husband graduated from Yale, he moved the family Odessa, Texas and entered the oil business. They then moved to Los Angeles, where he became a drilling-bit salesman and moved to numerous locations in the southern California area. Indeed, Barbara and her husband would move some twenty-nine times during their marriage. They returned to Texas, settling in Midland in 1950.
While her husband was often away on business, Barbara’s life was confined to the traditional responsibilities of motherhood and housekeeping, as well as some civic activities including teaching Sunday school and volunteering for the local theater company, YMCA, United Way, and hospital. Nevertheless, even her role as mother would have later public impact. The death of their two-year old daughter, Robin, from leukemia in October 1953 was a tragedy for the family, but it would lead her to support numerous leukemia and cancer research and treatment programs. When her son, Neil, was diagnosed as dyslexic, she began a lifelong interest in reading and literacy issues.
In 1959, the family moved to Houston, Texas. Three years later, Barbara’s husband was elected Republican Party chairman of Harris County. In 1964, Barbara participated in her first political campaign, an effort to elect her husband as U.S. Senator from Texas. Her husband lost that first race, but was elected to Congress in 1966, and again two years later, giving Barbara her first introduction to the life of a political spouse in Washington. She became active in various charities and Republican women’s activities. President Richard Nixon named Barbara’s husband Ambassador to the United Nations, giving Barbara the opportunity to begin a lifetime of friendships and acquaintances among international political leaders. In 1974, Gerald Ford named Barbara’s husband as head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing, China. It was a brief period of time when Barbara could enjoy time with her husband while he was on assignment, the couple often bicycling to explore the city. It was in marked contrast to his next assignment, head of the Central Intelligence Agency, a post he held until 1977. For Barbara and her husband, this was only the beginning.
So, who is Barbara Pierce? Why, Barbara Bush, of course!