(This story originally appeared in the Dec. 13, 2018 print edition of The Pioneer)
As he stood next to the coffin of former President George H.W. Bush in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., Blaine McCallister was nudged by golf legend Jack Nicklaus.
“He told me ‘probably the greatest American to ever be president,’” McCallister said.
The Fort Stockton native and professional golfer was among a select group of sports figures invited to attend the funeral of the 41st President of the United States.
“After Barbara (Bush’s wife) died earlier this year, the President started to plan his own funeral,” McCallister said. “Through his staff, I learned that I was among those being invited.”
McCallister found out in May and began the process of obtaining the proper clearances that would allow him into the ceremonies.
The list of 21 athletes featured some of sports all-time greatest – each of whom had a special connection to the President.
Included on the list were Hall of Fame baseball manager Tony LaRussa and future HOF player Albert Pujols; Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski; Future NFL HOF quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady; golf legends Ben Crenshaw, Freddie Couples, Phil Mickelson, Davis Love III, Greg Norman and Nicklaus; tennis greats Chris Evert and Pam Shriver; and broadcaster Jim Nance.
“I was one of the 21 and was totally honored by it,” McCallister, 60, said. “I was just blown away by it.”
In addition to be given time at the casket in the Rotunda Tuesday, Dec. 4, the group attended the Dec. 5 funeral at the National Cathedral.
On Dec. 4, the group dined together. The President’s son, Jeb, spent 45 minutes with the group and shared how much their friendship had meant to his father. Each person also shared thoughts about the President.
“As I stood up in front of all those hall-of-famers at that dinner, what I said to them more than anything was of all the people here, I am probably the least qualified as far as far as individual (accomplishments), but I know one thing I do cherish is a friendship with a man will always go in my life. That’s one thing I share with each and every one of you here tonight.,” McCallister said.
McCallister, who attended the University of Houston and was roommates with Nance and Couples, played golf with Bush when he was head of the CIA in 1977.
Their friendship developed in the 1990s after McCallister, Couples and Nance started the Three Amigos Golf Tournament in Houston as a means to raise money for medical causes.
“My wife (Claudia) has PXE (Pseudoxanthoma elasticum), which eventually took her sight,” McCallister said. “Freddie’s parents died of cancer and Jim’s father had Alzheimer’s. We decided to start a tournament to raise money.”
McCallister said one of their first calls were to the former President and First Lady.
“We called them up and asked if they would be our honorary chairmen and they were kind enough to accept it,” McCallister said. “Being that they were so wonderful to us and how much they enjoyed time with us, they basically called us their ‘three other sons.’ They came on board and the tournament became very successful and we went from raising a little money to raising a huge amount of money.”
Even after the tournament ceased because it achieved its goals, the Bush family continued to keep in touch and their friendship grew. McCallister mentioned that Barbara Bush would send letters to Claudia at their home in Florida to see how she was doing.
And, of course, they played golf.
“The President has always been into the game of golf,” McCallister said. “There was only one thing he cared about: Playing quick. Scores did not matter. His main concern was playing quick.”
McCallister said the President always enjoyed himself whether is played well or poorly.
“He’d get mad when he hit a bad shot, just like the rest of us,” McCallister said. “One thing about it, if he got mad, he was doing it quickly.”
McCallister said that he looks back fondly on his friendship with the Bush Family.
“As a guy growing up in Fort Stockton, having to opportunity to know the President is something I’ll never forget in my lifetime,” McCallister said. “He’s probably the greatest American other than my dad that I’ve ever meet in my life.”
McCallister recalled the time his father, Sid, was able to share some time with the President.
“I just thought, ‘Man, there are two of the greatest men in my life,’” McCallister said.
McCallister said he hoped that the tributes and media coverage will encourage others to emulate the former President.
“I’ve never meet a man that could get more done and be as successful as he was doing it and had the support that he had doing it – there was no divisiveness,” McCallister said. “When he put forth his effort, everybody was on board.
“…As an Americna, this is a man we should never forget. I think a lot of the world could use the clarity of what he’s done and take a lesson from it.”