Local man remembers chance encounter with Barbara Bush

Published 3:00 am Monday, April 23, 2018

When Billy Ray Williams of Brantley heard the news that Former First Lady of the United States Barbara Bush had died, his thoughts turned immediately to Thanksgiving 1990.

Williams was serving on the USS Nassau in the Persian Gulf and President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush came aboard to thank the sailors and Marines for their service to their country.

Thanksgiving at sea was much like any other day until a “rumor” began circulating that “the President is coming.”

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“I was a boiler technician so down there, we were the last to hear the ‘news’ but we didn’t think the President of the United States was going to come to the Persian Gulf to wish us a Happy Thanksgiving,” Williams said.
However, what was thought to be a rumor was suddenly a reality.

President Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush were aboard.

“There were about 3,000 sailors and Marines on board and we gathered on deck to welcome the President and First Lady,” Williams said. “They shook hands with as many of us as they could. I couldn’t believe that I shook hands with President Bush and Mrs. Bush. It was one of the most exciting days of my life.”

Some of the sailors were fortunate to have photos taken with the President and First Lady. Some got autographs.

“I only got to shake hands but how many people ever get to shake hands with the President of the United States and the First Lady,” Williams said. “We were all as honored to see her as we were to see him.”

As suddenly as they had arrived, the President and First Lady were gone.

“But seeing them in person is a memory that I’ll always have,” Williams said. “And, thanks to my mama, Fannie Kyser Williams, I have pictures to go with the memory. Mama kept important things in a safe deposit box. After she died, I opened the box and found she had kept Navy magazines that I brought home. One of them, the Persia Excursion, had pictures of the President and First Lady Barbara Bush on the USS Nassau. When I heard that Mrs. Bush had died, I went and got those magazines. They are even more special treasures now.

Williams said he went some rough times in the Navy and through rough waters but he would not give up his military experience for the world.

“I served and I’m proud that I did,” he said. “My service was something that I could do for my country.”