Former President George Bush waves to fans as he walks off the field with Chattnaooga Lookouts owner Frank Burke after pre-game ceremonies on the opening day at the new BellSouth Park.

Close to home

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When they arrived, former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, met with a fitting dignitary: the San Diego Chicken.

The Bushes came here on April 1, 2000, to toss opening pitches in the debut game for the Chattanooga Lookouts' new downtown stadium. Team owner Frank Burke was a family friend, and he wanted a glitzy lineup to cement the day in Chattanooga history. The Bushes were a big get.

But so was the chicken. In the giant-headed, bright-feathered, Muppety world of mascots, he was royalty.

When the Bushes walked into the stadium's front office, one of the first people they saw was the chicken man himself, Ted Giannoulas. He donned his suit, minus the head.

"Their eyes got big," Burke recalled Tuesday. "And Ted looked at them and said, 'Didn't you know? It's casual Friday.' They loved it. [George H.W. Bush] had a great sense of humor. He was really a kind, nice man."

As the country's past and present leaders gathered this week in Washington for Bush's viewing and national funeral, Burke and others with local ties thought about their quiet interactions with the man, mostly from his visit to Chattanooga 18 years ago. Generally, their recollections align with the national memory that has crystallized since Bush's death Friday: that of a former world leader who prized simplicity over pomp.

Bush became friends with Burke's father, Daniel Burke, a media executive, in 1978. Bush was preparing for his first run at the presidency, and he wanted to pick Daniel Burke's brain. But they soon bonded over shared history. Daniel Burke was friends with Barbara Bush's brother. Both families enjoyed spending time in Kennebunkport, Maine.

The Bushes regularly visited the family and attended games of the Portland, Maine, Sea Dogs, a Minor League Baseball team owned by Daniel Burke. In December 1999, Frank Burke sent a letter to Bush's Houston office, inviting him and Barbara to opening day for the Lookouts' new stadium.

Bush called him, agreeing to take him up on the offer. They planned to keep his appearance a secret.

"I think that's why he agreed to come: He wanted to surprise my mom and dad," Frank Burke said. "That was probably the last place they expected him. But I also thought it would be a pretty neat thing for Chattanooga."

The secret got out. He said Bob Corker wanted to throw a fundraiser for Bush's son, George W. Bush, at his Riverview home, with the former president in attendance. According to Times Free Press archives, the fundraiser cost $1,000 per couple.

When they arrived at the stadium, the Bushes ribbed each other during an interview about their forthcoming pitches.

"I'm going to just throw a plain, old hardball — underhanded," Barbara Bush told a Times Free Press reporter.

"You're not going to throw underhanded," her husband said, adding: "I'm going to throw a curve ball, twist it off a bit and keep it on the outside."

"You're not going to twist it off," Barbara Bush said.

The former president threw his pitch to City Councilman Yusuf Hakeem, who dropped the ball. Barbara Bush pitched to Councilman John Lively.

"Hers was every bit as good as his," Frank Burke said Tuesday.

The Bushes flew into town from Texas on a plane owned by Jack Lupton, the Coca-Cola bottling magnate. They stayed in cottages at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, said Joe Richardson, Lupton's longtime attorney. The night before, Lupton hosted a dinner party for the Bushes, attended by about 20 guests.

The next morning, before the baseball game, Bush played a round of golf with Richardson, Mayor Jon Kinsey and Bill Sudderth, Lupton's partner at the Chattanooga Land Company. They divided into teams: Kinsey and Sudderth versus Bush and Richardson.

Richardson, the best in the group, said he had a handicap of 1 or 2 at the time. He estimates the president's handicap was about 18. They lost the round, though Richardson declined to throw Bush under the bus.

"I don't know whose fault it was," he said. "I don't remember."

As the result of a wager, Bush handed Kinsey a dollar bill, which he keeps in his office.

"You would never have known he had been the president of the United States," Kinsey said. "He was so unassuming. He was so gracious. He was funny. You hear that from everybody, talking about him. He just had a special touch with people and clearly was just a nice person."

Tom Griscom, the former press secretary for Sen. Howard Baker and director of communications for President Ronald Reagan, said Bush was genuine, almost the same in private and in public. As a former ambassador to the United Nations and director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Bush brought foreign policy expertise to the Reagan White House.

And while he was unafraid to share differing opinions in meetings, Griscom said, Bush was careful to remain a vocal supporter of Reagan's through their eight years together.

Griscom does remember Bush losing his temper on one occasion, though. In 1988, as Bush campaigned to succeed Reagan, senators weighed whether to ratify the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The White House wanted to hold a press event showing that Democratic and Republican leadership in the Senate backed the treaty. That would include Sen. Bob Dole, Bush's opponent for the Republican nomination at the time. Griscom said he relayed the information to the vice president's staff, and he was told to go ahead with the event.

About an hour later, he said, Bush returned to Washington from a campaign stop in Texas. Griscom was told to see Bush in the vice president's office. Somewhere, the behind-the-scenes communication broke down, and Bush was not happy about Dole's position in the news cycle.

"I tried to say four or five words," Griscom recalled Tuesday. "And I realized I just needed to be quiet. It was the best tongue lashing I had to that point."

But Griscom also remembers fond moments. In June 1987, after Reagan's famous "Tear Down This Wall" speech, the staff touched down at Andrews Air Force Base. Awaiting their arrival, George H.W. and Barbara Bush stood at the foot of the stairs.

"They had the biggest smiles on their faces," Griscom said. "They thanked everybody who participated in what was a momentous event for our country."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.