Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Teachers: Bush Was Lion of Literacy

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Teachers: Bush Was Lion of Literacy

Article excerpt

The late Barbara Bush, commander of the war on adult illiteracy, didn't conduct her raids from a distance.

She got down in the trenches. Even in places like Bergen County.

Once, she even recorded a public service radio announcement specifically for a Hackensack-based literacy organization.

"It said something like, 'Bergen County PLUS is the one to call.' And then she gave the phone number — which is the same one as today," recalled Emmy Bledsoe of Mahwah.

Bledsoe is one of many educators who are mourning the loss of the former first lady, who died Tuesday at age 92.

"We just loved her," said Bledsoe, co-founder of what is now known as Project Literacy of Greater Bergen County Inc. (It was Bergen County PLUS back in the day).

"She was honest, she was real, she was American and she cared about adults who couldn't read or write," Bledsoe said.

Project Literacy is one of the many that sprang up in the 1980s in the wake of Bush's high-profile task force to combat illiteracy while she was second lady (1981 to 1989) and first lady (1989 to 1993).

"The whole project loved Barbara Bush," Bledsoe said. "If someone said, 'Barbara Bush,' there was a little hush."

Right now, 160 adults, taught by 135 volunteers, are getting remedial reading and writing lessons from Project Literacy, founded in 1987. These days, more of them — two-thirds — are learning English as a second language. But all of them are struggling with the same disability, and often with the same sense of shame. That's where Barbara Bush took command.

"She shined a light on it, because there's a stigma," said Lauren Sproull, a spokeswoman for the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. "Sometimes people don't want friends, family and co-workers to know they have issues reading. Sometimes they can't get a job. Mrs. Bush recognized that, and had a vision."

There are 63 million Americans over the age of 16 who can't read at an eighth-grade level, according to Literacy New Jersey, based in Edison. Some 16 percent of the population of Bergen County is considered functionally illiterate, said Project Literacy Executive Director Chris Stout.

"They can't read children's report cards," Stout said. "They can't understand prescriptions or insurance policies. They can't read nutrition facts at the grocery store. One out of 10 drivers on the road cannot read the road signs."

The implications for democracy — and for traffic — are alarming. This is the need that Barbara Bush saw, and set out to address.

It was at a March 6, 1989, luncheon, just two months after she became first lady, that Barbara Bush announced the creation of the Barbara Bush Foundation.

But long before that, she had made adult literacy her crusade. It was her theme in the 1980s, during the years of George H.W. Bush's vice presidency, and it continued during the decade in which she saw her son George W. …

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