Former President George H.W. Bush had ties here in Acadiana.
The CEO of Acadian Ambulance, Richard Zuschlag, became close friends with the forty-first president because of the post-Hurricane Rita recovery efforts.
“George H.W. Bush loved the people of Louisiana, particularly the Cajuns here in Acadiana. He believed they were people who worked hard and had a good Christian life,” said Zuschlag. “The more time I spent with him, the more genuine I found him to be. You know, sometimes you see people on TV and they act one way and behind the scenes it’s somewhat different. George Bush was a faithful man with great character and I have a deal of respect for him.”
In the years following his presidency, Bush took a keen interest in continuing to help his country especially during natural disasters, something the Acadian Ambulance CEO shared an interest in.
“We were motivated in large by the dedication during in the aftermath,” said Bush to the crowd at the 2006 Acadian Ambulance Medic Luncheon in Lafayette.
“And on the way back [from the luncheon] he asked me how the people were doing recovering from Rita. Everybody was spending a lot of time raising money for the people from Katrina but there wasn’t any one doing anything to help the people out in Vermilion parish and Cameron parish, some of our rural areas. And I kind of told him I felt bad. And so that put him in a position to where he wanted to get more involved,” said Zuschlag.
Serving on the Bush-Clinton Coastal Recovery Fund Committee, Zuschlag was inspired by Bush’s ability to look past the political divide of working with Former President Bill Clinton, who beat him in the 1992 presidential election, and serve their country.
“Any time a hurricane hit this country or hit anywhere in the world, when they would have a major disaster, he would always be involved with Former President Bill Clinton. And I got to spend some time flying with them on that helicopter, and to see them react and really be friends with each other was interesting,” he said.
“A lot of people were surprised to see George Bush and Bill Clinton working together. In fact Barbara still calls us the odd couple,” joked the former president during the 2006 luncheon.
But his love for Louisiana reaches even further back to 1957 for another hurricane. At the time Bush owned a small oil company. When Hurricane Aubrey devastated the south, Bush came down to see the destruction and help in any way he could.
“And not very many people know this but he stayed an extra day and helped load some of the dead onto the barges so he got really attached to the people in Cameron Parish. And that was one of the reasons he wanted to work with me [ several years later] to raise money for them,” shared Zuschlag.
Bush’s humility and passion shined even when no one was looking. When a hurricane devastated a community in Texas, Zuschlag, Bush and Clinton flew to a shelter to visit people who had just lost everything.
“I will never forget the two former presidents spending two hours, mingling with people at that ware house, without any press conference or anything, wandering around and holding babies and talking and hugging people. And people would be in such shock that that was really the former president of the United States paying attention to them,” he recalled.
It is that commitment and compassion, that Zuschlag said will be the legacy of the forty-first president.
“He was a very compassionate person who cared very much for this country and he taught me that it’s very important to give back to the community, whether it’s through government service or volunteer work,” he said.
Zuschlag will be attending the former president’s second memorial service in Houston on Thursday.