How a radical class—part Lord of the Flies, part Peace Corps—introduced a preppy teenager to Mexico and the love of his life.
He was born in Midland, Texas, and he spent a good bit of his boyhood in Houston, and he went to high school in Andover, Massachusetts, and to college in Austin, Texas, and he has lived for the last three and a half decades in Miami. But at the top of the list of the most important places in the world in the life of Jeb Bush is the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, and its conservative, old-world Catholic capital of León.
León is why he proposed marriage in Spanish, why his three children are Mexican-American, why his favorite foods are enchiladas and chilaquiles — why he is not a Protestant like the rest of his pedigreed New England family.
Jeb Bush’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Texas; his youthful tour as a banker in Venezuela; his decision to live in bilingual, bicultural South Florida; his lucrative business partnership with a Cuban-American real estate developer; his stubborn insistence on a doors-open immigration policy in a Republican Party that has moved away from it; even the portrait of the patron saint of Mexico that hung in the mansion in Tallahassee when he was the governor of Florida — so much of it can be traced back to León.
“My life really began in earnest when I was 17 years old in León, Mexico,” Bush, the third member of his family to seek the American presidency, said this week in a packed living room in Bedford, New Hampshire.
In 1971, he met Columba Garnica de Gallo, the petite local girl who would become his wife, in the city’s central plaza on a Sunday afternoon, toward the end of a two-month study-abroad program in the middle of his senior year at Phillips Academy, commonly referred to as Andover. He has described the moment as “knock-down,” “knocked me out” love at first sight; earlier this month in Dubuque, Iowa, he called it “a lightning strike.”
But like all creation myths, Bush’s Mexico love story is more complicated than his stump-speech account: What changed him forever was an Andover story, too, about a privileged, tradition-bound place upended by the tumult of the 1960s, leading to a course different from any other Andover had ever offered, an experiment that exposed Bush and a small group of carefully selected classmates to a set of ideas and experiences that were contemporary, progressive and even radical. This was no mere academic reading list; it was an exercise in remaking young men, forcing them to endure physical stunts that seem in retrospect shocking, almost negligent — so stressful and unsettling many in the group later would liken the ordeal to Lord of the Flies. The man who would go on to become the self-described “most conservative governor in Florida’s history” had his life transformed by an edgy, leftist class.
It was called Man and Society.
His first year at Andover, Bush re-did the ninth grade — even so, he has admitted, he barely passed. His father had gone to Andover, and so had his brother, but Bush felt more like an outsider than an insider. Andover was much harder than the private school he had been going to in Houston. He adjusted reluctantly to its rigors and pressures. He was apathetic and apolitical and smoked marijuana, as did many others around him; some, although not all, remember him as a bully. “I was a cynical little turd in a cynical school,” he once said.
For Bush, for Andover and for America as a whole, it was a difficult time. In the late 1960s, as the country heaved with change, Andover administrators looked for ways to respond. Andover is one of the oldest, most eminent preparatory schools in the country, and it “underwent more basic changes during this decade than in all its previous history,” Frederick S. Allis Jr. wrote in Youth from Every Quarter. The boys — and they were all boys, 883 of them, with names like DuPont and addresses on Park Avenue — no longer had to wear coats and ties. They no longer had to go to daily chapel. They no longer had to go to church on Sundays. Many of them started growing their hair long, with beards, moustaches and bushy sideburns. The headmaster in this moment of flux created a committee to study the curriculum, and the committee recommended, among other things, less rote work and more experiential learning, fewer lectures and more conversations — an education in which the questions were as important as the answers. One question the committee thought might be especially instructive: “What is man?”
Man and Society was the brainchild of two of Andover’s most revered and inventive instructors.
Tom Lyons, a scholar of the presidency and the Supreme Court, walked with crutches because of the polio that ended his Ivy League football career. He sometimes banged them against classroom desks to punctuate points. Lyons, Bush told Politico through a spokesman, was “spectacular” and “beloved.” Wayne Frederick wore loafers with socks that matched his white hair and spearheaded the teaching of a legendarily challenging class on American history.
Now they envisioned an interdisciplinary course in the social sciences that essentially was a comparative study of inner-city America and revolutionary Mexico. Man and Society, they wrote, was “designed to present in conceptual form basic problems which confront man in contemporary society.” The full-year, elective course was to be an exploration of existential tensions. Ethnicity. Religion. Race. Class.
It started in September of 1969. There were 27 students enrolled.
Bush was one of them.
He was a junior and his rocky entry at the school was by then the distant past. He was a member of the tennis team on his way to being its captain. His favorite teacher was his Spanish teacher, Angel Rubio, who allowed no English in his classroom, according to the St. Petersburg Times, and considered Bush “an excellent student, very interested in all that had to do with South America.”
“The primary objective of education,” Lyons would write later in a publication called The Independent School Bulletin, “is to bring about some behavioral change in the student.”
That year in Man and Society, they read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King’s Stride Toward Freedom, Charles Silberman’s Crisis in Black and White, Edward Baltzell’s The Protestant Establishment, Studs Terkel’s Division Street: America, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s Beyond the Melting Pot. These were the opposite of musty textbooks, titles not typically found in the libraries of longtime Andover feeder homes in places like Greenwich, Connecticut, and Manhattan’s Upper East Side. For many of the sons of the country’s business and social elite, sheltered, waspy and well-heeled, this was jarring, unfamiliar material. Bush and the other students were asked to think about things they hadn’t thought about. The corrosive nature of unchecked privilege and power. Class differences. Shifting demographics. For whom did this country work the best? Who got to be an American? Who got to say?
By the spring of 1970, Lyons and Frederick were talking to Richard and Maria Merrill, the American husband and Mexican wife who ran in León the Instituto Moderno de Lenguas Extranjeras, or the Institute of International Memorable Learning Experience — “IMLE” in both Spanish and English. They were determined that the 1971 winter term of Man and Society would be done away from the classroom.
Bush, along with three other Class of 1971 seniors, was allowed to sign on for this part of the program because he already had taken the rest of the class. Students had a choice: Either they could live in the rough, poor South End of Boston, or they could go to León — destinations equally foreign to most Andover boys. For Bush, the choice was obvious: With nine other students and a chaperone, he would head to Mexico.
Before that, though, he served as a kind of emissary for Andover. He went to León for a one-month visit in the summer of 1970, Bush said, to “help prepare” for the arrival of his classmates the following winter. Richard Merrill talked with George H.W. Bush in Houston to reassure him about “IMLE” and León. The meeting must have been satisfactory. Why Bush, not yet 17 1/2 years old, played this role for Andover, instead of any of the other students, or a teacher, remains unclear — what is clear, though, is that he was interested in Mexico, well before the central plaza “lightning strike,” and Andover saw a spark and stoked it.
I am writing you to tell you I am planning to take a plane to Mexico City, June 30 at 12:00 P.M. from Houston and I arrive about an hour later. The flight No. is 501 and I will be on Pan Am. I could not find a bus schedule for Mexico but one man said that the(y) usually run on the hour from Mexico City to León. If I get on a bus to León what do I do when I get there?
I wrote the same information to your husband in San Antonio (if he is there). I am sorry I couldn’t talk to you when you were at Andover but I had to leave for home.
I have the rest of the things needed to get into Mexico and I (am) ready to work hard for your program.
Maria Merrill, who’s dead, along with her husband, “felt like Jeb was a big, huggable teddy bear,” their daughter, Patricia Merrill, said in a recent interview in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she lives. “The warmth he exuded, his size, his smile — she just thought of him as a wonderful teddy bear. I heard her use that expression a few times.”
The local paper ran an article about Bush, identifying him as the son of a congressman from Texas and an “advanced” student of Spanish. He also, the article explained, taught kids English. They called him Juan.
“All candidates for the Man and Society program were carefully screened,” the teachers informed the parents in the lead-up to the trips. “The selection of your son means that the school is confident he is mature enough to meet the challenges presented by an unfamiliar environment and to gain from the experience. … Fortunately, both the Boston and the Mexico groups appear to consist of well-motivated boys, emotionally and intellectually prepared for the demands of the winter experience.”
Before they went to Boston or Mexico, though, they participated from Nov. 30 to Dec. 15 in what Lyons and Frederick labeled the “Log Cabin” experience.
Lyons wrote a memo to other teachers.
We hope to let the boys develop their own society.
They lived together, all 20 of them, plus a taciturn, hands-off teaching assistant named John J. Patrick, just recently graduated from Dartmouth himself, in a small cabin not far from Andover and then an even smaller cabin near the harsh summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Cardigan. They were asked by gruff Outward Bound instructors to perform disorienting and often harrowing physical feats.
They were told to rappel off the bell tower on campus. They were told to trudge 24 miles through slush from Andover to Crane Beach on the Massachusetts coast.
A disorganized community cannot act collectively towards the problems it faces.
They were dropped in rubber rafts in the Shawsheen River in the dark. A few of them, nearly hypothermic, ditched the rafts and climbed up the bank and into the woods toward the light of a house, which turned out to belong to a game warden, they recalled, who was surprised to see Andover students, shivering and lost.
People have to learn how to work together.
They were driven in vans, blindfolded, to locations around the area and made to work their way back, traipsing through backyards and farms hunting for clues. They were forced, they said, to hike tied together with ice axes and crampons to the top of Mount Cardigan, at one point tumbling together down a steep face of a snowy gully. Axes ripped through clothes.
Students will come face to face with themselves.
They had to go out and gather wood to start fires to cook food and stay warm. The sky was gray. Days were short. They slept in sleeping bags just about stacked on top of each other. It’s hard to say whether Lyons and Frederick wanted the boys to bond, or turn on each other, or some of both — Lyons and Frederick are dead — but they definitely wanted to make them uncomfortable, and succeeded.
What does John Siliciano remember? The cabins. Especially the one up on the mountain. “I became intensely aware of the need for isolation and space,” he said from upstate New York. He huddled under a table, his own “little cave.”
“Things got very testy up there,” Brian Balogh said from Virginia. “The mood was so hostile and angry.”
Many of the Man and Society students who talked to POLITICO referenced Lord of the Flies — without the book’s physical violence. Jammed in tight quarters, under considerable stress, they recounted a situation where group unity dissolved. Back at school, there existed a loose social hierarchy of freaks, jocks, zeroes and “straights.” Out in the woods, the breakdown was different. Factions emerged based on who pulled their weight and who didn’t, who cooked and who couldn’t, who tended the fire and who wouldn’t, who went to fetch wood and who continued to play cards. “I remember it being a group that would go outside,” Vin Broderick said from New Hampshire, “and a group that stayed mostly inside.”
“I learned more about myself and other people than I ever knew before,” Balogh told Lyons in a post-cabin debrief, “and … and … I’m not sure I’m glad I know what I know.”
“We turned on each other,” he would say later. “We self-segregated.”
Bush would soon distinguish himself in Mexico. Here? Some of his fellow members of the course called him a blueblood. Some called him a country clubber. They knew he was an Andover legacy and that his surname meant something, but lots of kids at Andover had important fathers and families — and at the time Bush’s father was an ousted politician, having just lost a race for the U.S. Senate, and his brother was a 24-year-old reservist in the Texas Air National Guard.
“He was just another kid, as far as I was concerned,” Ronald Gore said from North Carolina.
“He was a smart guy; he is a smart guy,” Balogh said. “And Jeb cared about people. When there was tension, he wasn’t part of the problem.”
“I remember Jeb,” Broderick said, “as a contributing member of our team.”
Bush himself said through the spokesman that all he remembers are two things.
It was cold.
He never went outside.
The boys who were going to Mexico met in San Antonio. They stayed the night of January 8 at the Blue Bonnet Hotel, for a total of six bucks, the 10 boys and John Patrick, the chaperone. He had a list of potential internship-like jobs they would do in León — teaching at a school for the deaf and mute, working for a state archaeologist, working at a local orphanage, helping to build a schoolhouse in a poor village outside of the city — and he asked them to log first and second preferences. Then they boarded a bus.
“Public buses. The Mexican equivalent of Greyhound,” Paul Finn said when reached on a business trip in Hong Kong. “It was a long ride.”
“We had no idea where we were going,” Lawry Bump recalled from North Carolina.
Once they got there, they stayed with host families. From Andover, they got an allowance of a dollar a day. In the evenings, they sometimes ate dinner with their host families, but mostly they got together with each other, in and around the central plaza. They shot pool. They drank Carta Blanca beer. The state fair was going on and Seagram’s and Bacardi had pavilions. They never got carded. Weekday mornings they got up and went to work.
Five of the 10 boys had been assigned to the schoolhouse project in the village of Ibarrilla, an hour-long, rutted-road bus ride out of town. Bush was one of them.
The project got off to a rough start.
“The man who had promised to donate land for the school had second thoughts about the extent of his generosity, and he put off giving us any land at all,” Patrick wrote to the dean of faculty at Andover. “Finally he agreed to let us have a lot so small that the municipal authorities wouldn’t accept it as the site for a public school. … The ejido, or farm commune, of Ibarrilla solved the land problem by giving us an ample parcel of uncleared land on the hillside above the village.”
Patrick and the five boys and a few locals began knocking down cactuses and moving large rocks with their hands. Eventually, the architect, Patrick said, loaned them a bulldozer and its driver from a road crew. The land was leveled and cleared. They marked in lime the outlines of the structure and started digging the foundation.
“The boys soon learned,” Patrick wrote, “that any Mexican peasant could do more work than two of them and keep on doing it for twice as long. A few local residents, most notably a public-spirited young man named Bernardo, worked with us steadily from the beginning.
“At first,” Patrick continued, “we ate lunch at the abandoned hacienda building in the center of the village, but as the boys got acquainted with Bernardo and his friends, they decided to share our sandwiches and their tortillas and beans …”
“Bernardo and the local team took over,” Bush said through a spokesman. He remembers the man as a community leader and a lover of the American space program. He showed the Andover group how to erect the schoolhouse, Bush said, “so it wouldn’t be built lopsided.”
Bush nonetheless stood out. Robert Merrill, one of the Merrills’ two sons, who is now a veterinarian in San Miguel de Allende, remembers Bush with his shirt off, swinging a pick to loosen the sun-hardened ground. His classmates remember him as the best Spanish speaker in the group. The villagers, some of whom are still living in Ibarrilla, remember him because he was 6-foot-4. “El Alto,” they called him. The tall one.
“I was around 11 years old,” Juana Hernandez Rocha said through a translator in a recent interview in Ibarrilla. “They came and started digging. They were speaking in English. We would come to watch.”
During breaks, Bush and the other Andover boys “improvised rounds of ‘golf’ with old pick handles and rocks,” according to Patrick, and explored the surrounding hills and cooled off with afternoon swims in a nearby dam. They took to calling it the “Acapulco Sun and Fun Club.”
Mostly, though, they kept working.
“Lifting bricks, lifting stones, just lugging material,” Finn said. “I don’t think there was a hierarchy — we were all the hired help.”
“I remember mixing the cement was difficult,” Bump said. “One of us carried a yoke-type contraption to the water source to fill up two pails. There was a great sense of accomplishment. None of us had ever done anything like that.”
“You couldn’t have come away from that experience without a real appreciation of physical labor,” Heath Allen said from Philadelphia. Bernardo in particular impressed all of them. “He was just this amazing force of nature, a natural leader, physically strong. I came away with the understanding that just because somebody is a poor villager doesn’t mean he doesn’t have extraordinary influence and skill. It was a breaking apart of any assumptions about class and privilege and talent and ability.”
At one point in Ibarrilla, Patrick said, he asked Bush about his college plans. “I can remember we were standing in one of the partially completed school rooms,” he said recently at his home in Northern Virginia. “I asked Jeb, ‘Where are you going to school?’ He told me, ‘University of Texas.’ My jaw dropped. The University of Texas was not in the known universe for an Andover student at that point.” Bush, he said, “was average — average for PA. He was capable, but at Andover that’s average. … If Jeb had wanted to go to Yale, he could have.”
Patrick, though, also believed Bush was mature for his age, affable but serious, not at all prone to just winging it, so he figured he had his reasons for the decision to go not to the Ivy League but to the public school in the capital of his home state. “He was in no way frivolous,” Patrick said. “There was no what the hell, why not, sure.” He seemed to him to be a young man who knew what he wanted.
Here was the first obvious instance of this Bush asserting some semblance of independence from the established family track. Then, one Sunday afternoon, toward the end of his time in León, the second: The central plaza bustled post-mass, and Bush saw through the back window of a car the face of shy, 16-year-old, devoutly Catholic Columba Garnica de Gallo.
After that, Bush’s classmates said, they saw less of him. “We knew,” Bump said, “that he was with her.”
“I went to Mexico hoping to learn Spanish and study the culture there,” Bush said in an article in The Phillipian, Andover’s student newspaper, on April 14, 1971. “Although I did not learn quite as much Spanish as I could have because of the group’s tendency to speak English with each other, I learned a lot about the Mexican people and their way of life.” He talked about the fiesta at the end of their work and how Bernardo “broke out crying to demonstrate the deep, deep feelings and admiration he held for our group of Americans. Apparently the people were quite impressed with the group and were willing to show their feelings even though it is very embarrassing for a grown Mexican to start crying in public.”
That spring, Broderick remembers, Bush was missing Mexico, lovesick. He hadn’t mentioned in the paper the girl he had met, but classmates say he was smitten. “Every time he saw one of us,” Bump said, “he’d talk about Columba.”
A letter arrived at Andover. “From my point of view, the program was a great success,” Maria Merrill wrote to the dean of faculty. “The most important thing is that the students really had a chance to be with the Mexican people — and work alongside with them, and of course the good impression they left in León of what a good American citizen can be like. The tiny village of Ibarrilla is especially grateful to them, as without their efforts and contributions their rural school would never have been built. They had been trying to obtain a school there for several years, and now it’s almost a reality.”
The villagers finished the work and attached a roof and began preparing for classes the following fall.
“Jeb Bush and the others would be very proud,” Richard Merrill wrote to the dean.
The dean was pleased. Unfortunately, he wrote back, “I am sorry to tell you that, because of staffing problems here and our inability to send along someone in John Patrick’s role, we shall not be able to offer the Mexico part of the Man and Society course next year.”
The 1971 trip to León would turn out to be one-of-a-kind.
What if the headmaster hadn’t created a committee to rejigger the curriculum? What if Lyons and Frederick hadn’t created Man and Society? What if Bush hadn’t re-done the ninth grade, and he had graduated from Andover in 1970, not 1971?
What would he have become?
Siliciano would become a professor and an administrator at Cornell. Balogh would become a professor at the University of Virginia. Broderick would become a teacher and a director of a New England summer camp. Gore would become a doctor. Finn would become a wealth management executive. Bump would go into the textiles business. Allen would become a musician. Peter Halley would become an artist. Joe Kwong would start a company in Northern California to help prisoners transition back into society.
So many of them would come to consider the course pivotal in their lives.
“When I tell stories about my high school experience, the majority of the stories are about Man and Society,” Broderick said.
“It was actually for me probably one of my most important educational experiences at Andover,” Gore said.
“It introduced me to the social sciences,” Balogh said. “It really had a dramatic impact on my life.”
“I felt like I was a different person before and after,” Allen said.
“In Mexico, we were all Americans floundering around, trying to find our way,” Allen added. “I don’t think I talked to my parents the entire time I was there. You were really on your own. You were really cut off. But I think that was really important to have that experience. By being cut off, really cut off, in terms of your family, your social standing, it was like — it was like Alice in Wonderland. ‘Who are you? Who are you?’ It was fun to try out a who, to see how it felt.”
“It definitely shaped so much of who I am now,” Kwong said. The course’s lesson for him? “There was something changing in this country, and if you are a responsible citizen, you owe a debt to society — so what are you going to do? Are you going to roll up your sleeves and work in the South End or in Mexico, or are you going to become an investment banker and prey on these folks? What good are you going to do with this education?”
For Bush? In what ways did Man and Society change him? He’s always been resistant to public self-analysis. He doesn’t remember much from the reading in the course. It didn’t turn him into a liberal. He is in many ways the most conservative Bush. But it’s hard to read the books and not underline certain passages.
In every man there is the possibility of his being — or, to be more exact, of his becoming once again — another man. Octavio Paz wrote that in The Labyrinth of Solitude, which the León group read in the winter term.
Bush would in his last trimester at Andover make the honor roll for the first time. He would share one of the school’s top honors as the co-winner of a history prize for an essay he wrote about human liberty. He also would write love letters to León, something he continued during the purposeful two and a half years it took him to hurry through college in Texas. He would visit her. He would marry her. He would convert from Episcopalian to Catholic because of her.
He would move to Houston, to Venezuela, to Miami, and he would become the governor of Florida. He would over and over describe meeting his future wife in León as “a life-changing event.” With her, he would return in 2007 to Ibarrilla, by then more the outskirts of the city than an isolated village, and look at the old schoolhouse, surrounded by more, newer buildings, for the 404 children who attend what is now called the Benito Juarez primary school.
He would call himself “definitely the first … Latino governor of the state of Florida.”
He would talk about his granddaughter, the daughter of his son, Jeb Jr., who has a Mexican-American father and an Iraqi-Canadian mother, and say that she, Georgia Helena Bush, “is what the future looks like, of America, if we get it right.”
Michael Kruse is a senior staff writer for Politico.