The 41st U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush made a memorable campaign stop in Gaston County on Oct. 21, 1992.
Wade Jones was in his late 20s and living in Lowell at the time, when he gathered with thousands of others to see the incumbent president stop in Ranlo as he campaigned on a two-day Southern swing via railroad against Democrat nominee Bill Clinton.
Jones took off work and attended the event — held near the intersection of Cox Road and Ozark Avenue — with his wife and oldest son, who was less than 2 years old. They got right up close to the stage, and watched as Bush stepped off the train wearing an Atlanta Braves jacket, and delivered a campaign speech alongside his youngest son, Marvin Bush, and politicians such as the late U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Jones was asked by a Gaston Gazette reporter covering the president’s visit to lend his thoughts for an article to be published the following day. In the article, Jones commented, “He reiterated the facts that he brought up during the debates. The train trip through North Carolina is good. It gives a good one-two punch after the debates. I think he could have done this a little sooner, though.”
Three days later, Jones received a surprise phone call from a Secret Service agent, who asked for confirmation of his name and home address.
“Two days later, I got a letter from George H.W. Bush thanking me for the positive things I said in The Gaston Gazette,” said Jones. “It was so neat to get a letter from the president.”
On Saturday morning, just hours after learning Bush had passed away at age 94, Jones re-read the letter, which still hangs in a frame at their home in Mount Holly. He expressed his impressions and memories of the late president.
“I always thought of George H.W. Bush as just a real outstanding, clean-cut, honest person. And he just struck me as someone with a real high moral standing,” said Jones, who has been able to see in person all the current living presidents except Barack Obama. “I don’t think you find anybody — Democrats or Republicans — that would have a lot of negative things to say of him.”
The stop in Ranlo was part of Bush’s multi-day whistlestop tour through the Southeast, which began a day earlier when he and First Lady Barbara Bush boarded the Spirit of America train in Atlanta. The locomotive made its way through Georgia and stopped overnight in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The next day, the train continued on to Gaston County, Kannapolis, Thomasville, Burlington and Raleigh, where Bush attended the North Carolina State Fair and spent the night. He returned to Washington, D.C., the following evening.
Local GOP officials at the time said the Ranlo event drew a crowd of some 20,000 people. Thousands more, including schoolchildren, and nuns and residents from Holy Angels, waved at the train as it passed through downtown Belmont, Bessemer City and Kings Mountain.
Supporters of both Bush and Clinton — many waving flags and signs — came out just to catch a glimpse of the president. “Some youths climbed fences or scaffolding” and “Many people crawled through the woods to get close enough to the tracks to see the train,” according to the Oct. 22, 1992, articles appearing in The Gaston Gazette.
Toni Stamey, of Gastonia, told The Gaston Gazette that day, “This is my first year to vote and I really like how he said he’d get more grants for students, That’s really going to help me a lot.”
Walter Israel, a longtime Gaston County resident who recently moved to another part of the state, worked for the Bush campaign and was a lead organizer of the Ranlo visit. His brother, George Israel, was state chairman in Georgia for both Ronald Reagan’s and George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.
Walter Isreal said the Ranlo stop alone cost some $100,000, and it was the only site in Gaston County that the Secret Service would approve stopping, due to safety and other reasons. He said each stop was hand-selected for all the reasons, and that there were actually three trains that came through, each carrying different security officials and others involved with the campaign.
Israel spent countless hours coordinating with Gaston County’s public schools to make sure children were able to come see the president, and had several high school bands play at the event. He said the Secret Service had to take precautions that Wednesday morning when they spotted a man hunting deer in the woods near Kings Mountain.
“It was a mammoth undertaking,” he said. “You would not believe what it takes to make a visit like this.”
Bush served as an aviator in the U.S. Navy and his plane was shot down near Tokyo in 1944. Israel said they were able to surprise Bush on stage in Ranlo with a visit from the man who rescued him from the water.
“We got him on stage and Bush just about boo-hooed,” said Israel. “Bush turned to me and said ‘You got me.'”
The Clinton campaign had also planned campaign stops throughout North Carolina several days following Bush’s visit.
Bush served one term as president from 1989 to 1993. Though Bush carried Gaston County and North Carolina in his bid for re-election, he was defeated by Clinton.
Israel said he will always remember Bush for his “incredible character.”
“He was such a real person,” said Israel. “He makes you feel like you were an equal.”
You can reach Eric Wildstein at 704-869-1828 or Twitter.com/TheGazetteEric.