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Former Baraboo teacher, student fondly recall letter from Bush

December 16, 2018
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At her home Dec. 3, former Baraboo teacher June Sturgess looks at a copy of a book two of her students wrote about George H. W. Bush in 1990.

The day before she learned of President George H.W. Bush’s death, a former Baraboo teacher found a letter from him stashed among her seasonal decorations.

“I just thought it was so sweet,” said June Sturgess of Baraboo. She taught in the Baraboo School District for 25 years and then continued to substitute teach after retiring in 2005. “I remembered what a nice experience that was for myself and the girls, and obviously the Bushes.”

In 1990, Sturgess taught second grade at West Elementary School -- now West Kindergarten Center -- when she had her class read “Such Is the Way of the World” by Benjamin Elkin. She tasked her students with writing their own story in which the main character encounters misfortune and responds with “Such is the way of the world,” as did the character in Elkin’s book.

Friends Carley Beckett and Betsy Holzem -- now Carley Mercado and Betsy McCaulley -- chose the 41st president as their subject. Then about 8, McCaulley doesn’t remember how they came up with the idea for “George Bush’s O.K. Day,” but remembers they thought it was funny.

Seeing the subject matter, Sturgess had the girls make their book into a hardcover and mailed it to the White House. When the school secretary pulled Sturgess out of class one day to tell her she had a phone call from the White House, she didn’t believe it at first.

“I thought it was a joke,” Sturgess said.

But it wasn’t. First Lady Barbara Bush told Sturgess she and her husband had enjoyed the book, which made them laugh, and read it to their children.

“I was in awe that they would take the time to do that,” Sturgess said. “And I was excited for the girls.”

A letter soon arrived, addressed to the girls and signed by the president, who served from 1989 to 1993. He wrote to the girls: “You are very talented writers, and I am touched that you chose to write about the Bush family.”

Sturgess said she thought Bush’s response to getting the book showed his character and how family-oriented he was. He died Nov. 30 at age 94, just less than six months after his wife passed away.

The girls’ story starts with a maid spilling hot coffee on the president. Mishaps escalate throughout the day in which Bush’s limousine pops a tire, he misses a meeting, his house literally becomes a circus and his children and grandchildren stow away on his vacation to Florida. By the end, the president’s grandchildren fix his mistakes and “everything is right in his world.”

McCaulley, now 36 and a nurse at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, said she and Mercado were surprised to hear back from Bush.

“We thought it was really cool and, you know, Mrs. Sturgess made a really big deal out of it, because I think, you know, when you’re in second grade, you don’t really understand how big of a deal that actually is,” McCaulley said.

Both she and Mercado still live in Baraboo and have their own copies of the letter and book.

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