Laura Bush’s strong ties to El Paso go back to her grandparents, Jessie and Hal Hawkins, who moved to Canutillo in 1927. Like many others, they came for their health — Hal suffered from asthma — and the dry desert air was supposed to be a cure. They built a tourist court off Highway 80, a block from the Rio Grande. Now known as Doniphan Drive, it was the main road to California, and a good place for travelers to stop and rest as they drove out west during the Depression.
Laura Bush remembers boarding the train in Midland as a six-year-old and heading to El Paso where her grandparents would meet her at the station. She knew she’d almost arrived when she saw the twinkling lights in the distance, with the jagged form of Mount Franklin against the sky. She attended summer school at UTEP in 1966, living on campus, and her grandparents drove down to see her on weekends. When Texas Western Press published Tom Lea An Oral History in 1995, Laura returned to the campus for a reception, deciding the book would make the perfect Christmas gift. A few months later, she and then Governor Bush hosted a dinner for Tom and Sarah Lea, inviting fellow El Pasoan Jose Cisneros, a longtime Bush family friend.
Laura and George Bush returned to El Paso many times during his time as governor. They hiked in the Franklin Mountains, ate pan dulce at Bowie Bakery, and listened to ranchera music under the skies of the Chamizal National Memorial. When once asked why it wouldn’t be better for El Paso to secede from Texas, the governor replied, “Because then, Texas wouldn’t be the same.”
After George and Laura Bush moved to the White House, they borrowed Tom Lea’s painting, Rio Grande, from the El Paso Museum of Art and displayed it in the Oval Office. Whenever President Bush talked about the art he saw every day, he’d say the Oval Office was not dark and regal, but a light and open place — and then he’d point to Rio Grande. He’d close with his favorite Tom Lea quote:
Sarah and I live on the east side of our mountain. It is the sunrise side, not the sunset side. It is the side to see the day that is coming, not the side to see the day that is gone. The best day is the day coming, with the work to do, with the eyes wide open, with the heart grateful.