Back in the 1970s, there was a joke that every Republican in Texas could fit inside one reasonably sized home. It was probably true.
At that time, President George H.W. Bush was a former congressman turned chairman of the Republican National Committee. That evening, he had been invited to speak at a GOP gathering in a neighbor's home, and he was strolling up the street on foot when I and some of my friends came barreling around the corner on our bikes.
We, uh, almost took him out. We swerved all over the place to avoid a collision. He stopped good-naturedly to say "hello" and "slow down" and "aren't your mothers looking for y’all?" He told one of my friends that her mastery of her bike meant that she "would make a great fighter pilot." None of us appreciated who he was at the time, but my mom nearly died when I told her I'd almost hit a man on my bike going up the street. "That was Congressman Bush!," she cried, hoping that he would just forget.
Some years later, the Bushes had returned from China, where he had been U.S. envoy. He was on the verge of becoming director of the CIA. My parents and I were eating ice cream near our home one day when in walks Mr. and Mrs. Bush, and some of their kids.
The Bushes sat down at the table next to us. There was some very light conversation, and then my brother pointed to me and said, "Sir, Mark was the guy on the bike who almost ran you down on our street that day!" Needless to say, he didn’t remember, but Mrs. Bush said, "thank you, Mark. Every day was like that, walking in Beijing, so you just got him ready." I remember being amazed how fast I went from deep embarrassment to feeling quite important.
That’s one of the many wonderful things that saying thanks can do. President Bush once said that "when you’re thankful, you’re almost all the way home on anything, no matter what else may be going wrong." After a lifetime of achievement and service, his immortality may well be in the extent of his thankfulness and his desire to "create an opportunity for an opportunity to be created, because no man is an island, and we all need a ham sandwich now and then." (Yes, he really said that).
In 1988, through the generosity of one of my oldest friends, I had the opportunity to work for the Bush presidential campaign. By the time he was elected, I had to urgently find a way to keep body and soul together, so I went to work as an account executive for the now-legendary Chet Burchett at Edelman. I thought my political life was over for a while, so it was with no little thrill that I was asked by the White House to continue to do advance and some speechwriting for the president, even as I continued my work at the agency.
How did that happen? I’m told that the president said something to someone about liking a set of remarks I had written for him. That person called someone, who in turn called Dan Edelman. Words passed, and a unique opportunity for a little-known 24-year-old guy was created that I had no reason to expect and did not merit.
At the time, I was "thankful." But as I slowly matured as a human being and grew as a leader in large companies, I came to understand just how many very busy people had to take action in order for me to have that chance.
A few years ago, I had a chance to say thanks to the president during an Astros game. He and Mrs. Bush were sitting not far away. I recounted the story of the bikes, and we all laughed. "That would probably put me down for good today," he said wryly. Then I told him what I really wanted to say. He heard me out and said, "Feels great to say thanks, doesn’t it?" Then a few seconds later, "Keep saying thanks. Keep. Saying. Thanks." And that was it.
The president hated "preachiness," so I hope this isn’t that. What I have learned from those days took years to filter through my life, but it’s strongly rooted today. Our lives are the sum of some real effort and ability, a lot of persistent learning, and the many caring acts of many people, each of whom had more urgent fish to fry and didn’t have to help us out but did anyway. This means that every one of our achievements has their name on it too.
As it will for all of us, President Bush saw his success eventually fade and then disappear. But he will always be remembered for how much he helped others and how often he said thanks.
Mark Stouse is CEO of Proof Analytics and was a staffer on President George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign.