A revered letter-writer, former President George H. W. Bush personally signed notes to the many honorees of his Points of Light foundation, even as his health waned before his death at 94 last fall.
“He found gazillions of ways to lift people in his daily life, including writing thousands of notes to friends and notes of condolences, notes of congratulations,” son Neil Bush told PEOPLE on the eve of the first-ever George H.W. Bush Points of Light Awards Gala on Thursday evening.
The event honored three change-makers — country legend Garth Brooks, who received the inaugural George H.W. Bush Points of Light Award for Caring and Compassion; and Maria Rose Belding and Khloe Thompson, both everyday people — and also paid tribute to its presidential founder.
“He’d bring you to tears literally with his words,” Neil, the Points of Light board chairman, remembers of his dad.
In an at times emotional interview with PEOPLE, the international businessman and philanthropist and his daughter Lauren Bush Lauren, the founder and CEO of FEED, reflected on the lessons handed down by the Bush patriarch and the importance of service as the one-year anniversary of his November death approaches.
Even as their charitable work pays tribute to President and Mrs. Bush, Neil and Lauren are still grieving. A few times during the sit-down, Neil blinked back tears. (“We have a crying gene,” his daughter explains.)
While they don’t have plans for the anniversary of President Bush’s death, the family did try to go skydiving on his 95th birthday, in June. The former president famously celebrated several of his landmark birthdays, including his 90th, in the air.
Unfortunately it was too windy, so the family has decided to try again on Bush’s 100th birthday. At Thursday night’s gala, Jenna Bush Hager told PEOPLE she and sister Barbara Pierce Bush “absolutely” want to be there as well.
“Most of the cousins, and my dad gathered in Texas at A&M at his library,” Lauren recalls. “He would have been 95 and he was dead set on skydiving pretty much every five years. Had he been alive, he would have done it — wheelchair and all.”
Speaking with PEOPLE, Lauren and Neil fondly remembered President Bush’s daring and athleticism, and they also said they hoped the foundation will continue to promote some of the qualities he cherished most: selflessness and service.
“I think Points of Light as an organization speaks volumes about him and [how] he was always paying attention to the small guy,” says Lauren, 35, an awards co-chair for Thursday’s gala. “I hope what people take away from [the gala] is that it’s about him, but it’s also about the three people we’re honoring. I picture him sitting there saying, ‘Don’t make this just about me.’ “
“My dad has famously stated that you don’t have to be president, you don’t have to be governor or first lady to make a difference in the lives of others,” says Neil, 64. “By lighting a fire and shining the light on the great works that individuals can do, small and large, is really the legacy that I think I’m most proud of about him.”
On Nov. 30, just seven months after wife Barbara Bush’s passing, President Bush died.
“George H. W. Bush’s life is a testament to the notion that public service is a noble, joyous calling. And he did tremendous good along the journey,” Barack Obama, who succeeded Bush’s son in the White House, said following the news of his death.
“It’s a legacy of service that may never be matched, even though he’d want all of us to try,” Obama said then.
Though the eldest Bushes are both gone, their large family — including a former president, governor and other lawmakers — continues the tradition of service with their own passion.
George W. Bush Cries During Emotional Eulogy of Father George H.W.
“I wake every day counting my blessings that my businesses allows me to spend as much time as I do on these family legacy interests that mom and dad both promoted during their lifetimes,” says Neil, who is also the chair of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation.
“I was blessed to have amazing parents who in spite of having very public lives, kept as their No. 1 priority, family,” he says.
He has childhood memories of his father taking time out to play baseball with kids and his mother volunteering weekly at the local hospital. “‘Faith, family, friends’ is what they would say all the time. And so they never lost sight of those priorities.”
In 2007, Lauren continued down the path of her parents and grandparents when she created the lifestyle brand FEED to reduce child hunger.
She says she discovered her activist streak when she was growing up in Houston. Her mom, Sharon Bush, took her to volunteer at soup kitchens. Lauren says that she grew up with the motto “to whom much is given, much is expected” and with the understanding that giving back was an “unspoken expectation.”
“A lot of our family and my generation has, on their own, chosen a path of service and not because anyone older said, ‘This is what’s expected. You’re a Bush and this is what we do,’ ” Lauren tells PEOPLE. “Being close to individuals who’ve had such a massive impact like my grandparents, it empowers you to feel like, ‘Okay, well what can I do then?’ “
• With reporting by JILL STEMPEL