‘It certainly was a happy day.’ Looking back on Bush’s 1988 visit to Modesto, Turlock

George H.W. Bush dead at 94

Former US President George H.W. Bush passed away at age 94 in Houston, TX.
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Former US President George H.W. Bush passed away at age 94 in Houston, TX.

As our nation mourns the death of its 41st president, George H.W. Bush, at least a few Modesto and Turlock residents thought back to the stops the then-vice president made to the Northern San Joaquin Valley 30 years ago as he campaigned for the presidency.

On Oct. 15, 1988, Bush rallied support at Beyer Community Park, drawing a crowd estimated at 10,000. He was joined by his wife, Barbara, son Jeb, actor Chuck Norris, a couple of The Beach Boys and California Gov. George Deukmejian, among others.

“It certainly was a happy day in Modesto,” Carol Whiteside, who was the city’s mayor at the time and welcomed Bush at the park, said Monday.

Then, as now, Modesto is not normally recognized on the national scene, she said, so to have the future president and first lady, the governor and stars of music and movies all in one day was a big deal.

Whiteside pointed out, too, that it was a much less politically divisive time than it is now. “We had Bush and (his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael) Dukakis both visit, and I know for a fact that some people went to both rallies because it was so exciting.”

(Click here to see The Bee’s coverage from 1988)

Joan Clendenin had a role in arranging the Modesto visit through Jeb Bush. Her volunteer role provided the perk of getting to meet the future first couple and having her photograph taken with them. “That photo has been on my desk since 1988,” she said Monday, “and as long as I can go to that desk, it will be there.”

Clendenin, now a past chairwoman of Stanislaus County’s GOP central committee, recalled that because Bush was the sitting vice president at the time, the Secret Service was “all over the place.” Agents scoured surrounding neighborhoods, she said, and anyone living in a two-story residence was told to keep occupants away from the windows.

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George Bush waits for his chili to arrive at Latif’s in Turlock, Calif. on October 15, 1988. Also pictured is Governor George Deukmejian’s wife Gloria Saatjian at left. Michael Schumann The Modesto Bee

While on the way from the Modesto rally to Fresno that Saturday afternoon, the presidential caravan stopped in Turlock. Jim Stephens — then and now owner of Latif’s Restaurant — said he considers it his good fortune to have been the Bushes’ lunch spot.

“We were just in the right spot,” he said Monday. “Right spot” meaning right-hand side of Golden State Boulevard as the buses were heading south through town, and in a stretch where it was easy for them to pull over and block off the street in front of the restaurant, Stephens recalled.

He got a bit of notice when a man dressed in a white shirt and tie and sunglasses entered Latif’s and told him he’d have “a visitor” in about 30 minutes. Already having figured the visitor must be the vice president, Stephens asked and was told yes. “I said, ‘I have a banquet room upstairs,’ and they said, ‘No, we’ll want him right here at the horseshoe counter.’ ”

Anyone already in the restaurant was allowed to stay, but those who left would not be readmitted. Nor could anyone else enter at that point — not even a cook who was arriving to start his shift.

George and Barbara — “they were very nice people” — sat together on stools at the counter, where the vice president dined on chili, a chocolate shake and a slice of apple pie. In the years since, those stools have borne plaques that read “President George H.W. Bush sat here, 10-15-88” and “First lady Barbara Bush sat here, 10-15-88.” People still come in to show visitors the stools and have photos taken sitting in them, Stephens said.

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Plaques commemorate the seats used by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, when the presidential candidate and his entourage ate at Latif’s Restaurant during a stop in Turlock on Oct. 15, 1988. Deke Farrow jfarrow@modbee.com

Pictures from the visit adorn the wall next to the cash register, and the Latif’s website touts, “Some of the more famous people that have visited and enjoyed the restaurant include President George H.W. Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush, Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Deukmejian and wife Gloria, multiple U.S Senators, The Beach Boys, and Chuck Norris.”

Not just the Bush visit, but also his presidency, have stuck with those interviewed for this story.

Young couple Tony and Colleen Ippolito attended the rally with their then-18-month-old son, Daniel. Tony Ippolito, now a business teacher at Downey High, said one thing that always impressed him about George and Barbara Bush was how devoted they were to each other and to their family. “He was a kind, gentle man and I truly respected him,” Ippolito said.

Son Daniel has no memories of being at the rally that day, of course, but his parents have painted a picture of what it was like. And now, Daniel, a Coast Guard lieutenant stationed in Washington, D.C., will have his own experience and memories related to “41.” He is to attend Wednesday’s funeral service at Washington National Cathedral. “Completing the circle is what it seems like,” his father said.

Clendenin said her heavy involvement in politics stems from that Bush-Quayle campaign — “knowing what needs to be done and how to get it done so that (Republican) candidates can win in Stanislaus County.”

That Bush was the last GOP presidential candidate to win the delegates from California “proves the value of candidates coming to the Central Valley to do something other than raise money,” she said.

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George and Barbara Bush are happy to be in Modesto, Calif. on October 15, 1988. Al Golub The Modesto Bee

Clendenin noted that Bush was the last World War II veteran to serve as president. “I think that has profound implications for our nation that that generation is passing so quickly,” she said. “The fact creates sadness but also memories that I’ve been privileged to even stand by his side, and for that I’m thankful.”

Whiteside said, she, too, felt an “overwhelming sadness” at the 94-year-old former president’s death. She recalled being at a meeting of Republicans at which Bush spoke — no media, no cameras — of the agonizing decision he had to make to send Americans to war. “He actually got tears in his eyes. It was an incredibly moving moment. ... It demonstrated his character. He took every decision he made very personally.”

George Bush and his wife, who died in April, were an exemplary first couple, never vindictive or mean, Whiteside said. “They were almost like American nobility, and so I think when he passed, that whole era went with him.”