Couple with ties to Sewickley had personal connection to George H.W. Bush

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 | 1:33 AM

Ligonier resident Joe Byers vividly recalls the only time he’d ever seen his late father weep.

It was during a phone call offering condolences for his mother’s death in 1984.

The caller? Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

“My father was working at the time in Washington, D.C., in GOP fundraising so they knew each other, but the thing that always impressed me by Bush 41 was that he was very personal in his approach to people,” Byers said.

The friendship between Bush and Byers’ parents, Buck and Ro, who once lived in Sewickley, began two years earlier during a dinner at the Naval Observatory in the nation’s capital.

“Bush had just returned from China and he and my dad were friendly, but this invitation to dinner came out of the blue,” Byers said.

He credits a simple act of compassion for a move that would ultimately change his family’s destiny.

“My mother was seated to Bush’s right,” Byers said. “She was commenting about the beautiful Oriental rugs that the Bushes had acquired while stationed in China.”

At some point, Bush asked Ro Byers about her day. It was likely nothing more than polite conversation, Byers said, but it transpired into so much more.

Ro Byers explained to the vice president that it was a difficult time because she had been diagnosed with throat cancer.

He didn’t offer a pep talk or generic concern.

Instead, he asked if she would like a second opinion.

“The next morning, she got a call and was taken in as a research patient at the Warren G. Magnuson Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland,” Byers said.

“I swear she lived a couple years longer than if she had not had that care.”

When Ro Byers died in 1984, Buck’s phone rang just two hours later. Bush was calling from Air Force 2 to express his sympathy.

“How he knew that she had just passed, I’ll never know,” Byers said.

“What’s more is that I wrote Bush a note to thank him for the assistance he arranged for my mother and he wrote me one back. You would never see that in these days.”

Byers believes there are likely hundreds of similar stories about Bush that illustrate his genuine concern for humankind.

Said Byers: “The takeaway is that he was just a genuine down-to-earth person who cared about others.”

Tawnya Panizzi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tawnya at 412-782-2121, ext. 2, [email protected] or via Twitter @tawnyatrib.