Gordon D. Bush: looking at his career as scholarship competition opens

Gordon Bush with President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Gordon Bush.

The competition for the Gordon D. Bush scholarship has opened up for all SIUE junior-level students majoring in Political Science with at least a 3.0 GPA. The scholarship awards one student $500 with a winning essay on a selected political topic.

This year’s topic is about restoring urban areas that are in decline. Students are asked to reflect on the economic condition of East St. Louis and consider what could be done to bring the city back to its prosperous status as an “All-American City,” a title it earned in the 1950s.

In the essay, students are encouraged to write about how American youth can commit themselves to the rebuilding of cities like East St. Louis, that due to economic decline has seen high crime rate, corruption, and slow, painful deterioration.

For Gordon Bush, this is a topic that has resonated with him for most of his life.

Bush and his wife Brenda are both East St. Louis natives. Bush has always had a fondness and concern for his city, beginning in the late 1950s, when he was a senior at East Saint Louis Senior High School. His father was getting laid off from the Alcoa Aluminum Plant, which was getting shut down, along with many other plants and factories in East St. Louis at the time.

His father, who had been an employee at the plant for 25 years, told him that “these companies make these kinds of decisions,” but Bush wanted to know how the city government would answer to his father’s situation.

“I felt the mayor should do something about that and try to hold some of these companies and these jobs in the city,” Bush recollects. “So I, as a kid, went down to City Hall to meet with the city planner.”

He did not get to meet with East St. Louis’ city planner, but questioning his city’s workings and having the determination to set it right had only just began. This visit to City Hall would set off a series of inspiring political events that would make Gordon Bush not only beloved by citizens of his city but known by and closely acquainted with famous political figures like Colin Powell, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, President Bill Clinton, and President Barack Obama.

Gordon Bush. Photo courtesy of Gordon Bush.

Once Bush graduated from high school, he attended SIUE’s East St. Louis campus, which, at the time, was located at East St. Louis’ former high school. He studied Geography during his undergraduate career, but he found himself being drafted by the United States Army in 1966.

With just one quarter to go before he would earn his bachelor’s degree, Bush originally did not want to go to the army. However, he ended up appreciating the training it gave him for his future endeavors.

“That military background, that regimentation, [learning] how to put things in order, how to task and plan and follow-up…all those things really gave me an addition to the great city planning skills I got from SIUE,” he says.

Bush came back after three years of active duty overseas, and with high awards for his leadership under his belt, he took up where he left off at the University. He finished his last quarter and then immediately began pursuing a master’s degree in Urban Planning.

While in graduate school, he remained in the army reserve and also worked with the Model Cities program, which enabled him to work for the city of East St. Louis under a federal grant. It was during this period that Bush, encouraged by his brother, ran for city commissioner of public property. The year was 1970, a mayoral election year, and the young Bush won the position and thus, made his formal entrance into politics.

As commissioner of public property, Bush put the policy of required building inspections into place. Bringing about this policy was revolutionary, as no other city in the Metro East and hardly any across the River had yet adopted this policy.

During some of his time as property commissioner, Bush was still a graduate student at SIUE. He obtained his degree in 1971. He looks back at those first years of politics as a great learning experience for him.

“That gave me some really good experience,” he says. “It helped me to improve communities. We did demolition, constructed new homes, and all those things.”

Bush did not stop at serving as public property commissioner. From this point, he stayed in East St. Louis government, flowing with the storm of changes the deteriorating city was going through.

“I served under all three forms of government,” Bush explains. “One was the commission form…then Aldermanic form, and then they changed it to mayor council form. I ran for mayor at that time, so I’m the only man I know of in Illinois that served under all three forms of government.”

Bush drew from his early inspiration to help the citizens of the city to run for mayor. The disorganized practices of government officials in the city disappointed him, but he knew he needed to keep in mind East St. Louis’ citizens who suffered the most at the city’s economic decline.

“The citizens saw the city slowly deteriorating, and they just weren’t satisfied,” Bush recollects. “The politics was always so heavy, and always has been in East St. Louis, but it wasn’t getting any different. Politicians had influence, they had power…they did favors for the people they wanted to.”

Though there were some questionable actions within the city’s political system, honest city workers were paying the price of government officials’ mismanagement. One instance that particularly struck Bush was when he saw a wounded East St. Louis firefighter being carried around on a stretcher at City Hall because no one knew what to do with him.

Firefighters and other East St. Louis city workers were not given the option of health insurance, and the hospital was hesitant to take an uninsured man. Finally, Bush witnessed the man, in great physical pain, signing a paper, promising that he would pay his hospital bill in order to receive treatment.

“That just about tipped it over for me,” Bush says, “I said, ‘I’ve got to get involved in this mayor’s race, and I’ve got to win it to try to turn this city around.’”

He got involved in the race, and he won. Bush served two consecutive terms as mayor of East St. Louis from 1991 to 1999, and during his time as mayor, East St. Louis saw many improvements.

Democrat Mayor Gordon Bush (center, left) and Honorable Republican Governor Jim Edgar (center right) cleaning up East St. Louis. This was arguably the first and largest citywide cleanup in which a sitting Republican governor has personally participated in Illinois history. Photo courtesy of Gordon Bush.

Before his initial run as mayor, the city had not had trash pickup for two years, and Bush saw that the trash around the city was cleaned up and that trash service was enabled within just 10 days of when he embarked on the project. He secured the city as the location of the Casino Queen, which boosted the city’s economy tremendously. He also ensured that the city received newer police cars and enough gas to run them, as this had been a problem before he came into office.

Even through the improvements he has made to the city and the legend he has become to its citizens, being involved in East St. Louis has not always been easy. Bush had remained in military service until reaching the rank of officer.

His general even offered Bush a position at the Pentagon, where he would eventually reach the rank of general, just before his first run as mayor. Although the career change would have offered tremendous security and prosperity for him and his wife, Bush turned it down. With all his background knowledge and that ever-present dedication to his city, he had decided, after much thought, recollection, and prayer, that his place was with East St. Louis.

Besides being commissioner and mayor of East St. Louis as well as a decorated officer, Bush’s career is marked by several accomplishments. He has served as president of the National Conference of Black Mayors and led mayoral delegations to meet with presidents of Cameroon, Burkino Faso, and Nigeria. He additionally met with the President of Ghana here in the U.S.

Gordon Bush with President Bill Clinton at the White House with his wife Brenda Bush looking on. Photo courtesy of Gordon Bush.

He has been honored by President Clinton, whom he endorsed during the presidential elections in the 1990s, with a Presidential Certificate of Appreciation for his 28 years of distinguished military service. Bush is additionally acquainted with President Obama, whom he has known since he served as an Illinois senator.

From SIUE, Bush has received the Distinguished Alumnus Award and has been inducted into the University’s Alumni Hall of Fame, along with the recent honor of having a scholarship in his name. He also has an elementary school in East St. Louis named after him, and at that school, he awards scholarships to bright, promising children every year.

Bush and his wife Brenda additionally award four $1,000 scholarships to college-bound, graduating seniors of East St. Louis Senior High School through the East Saint Louis Youth Commission, an organization that he and his wife founded.

While attending SIUE Gordon pledged Kappa Alpha Fraternity (KAY), of which he is a Life Member. Recently, he received one of its most prestigious honors as a member of its elite “Centennial Founders Club”. Gordon is also the 1996 recipient of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) highest award: The “Humanitarian Award”.

Additionally, Gordon holds the highest degree in Masonry, the “33rd Degree,” and is an Honorary Past Imperial Potentate  of Shriners, International. He is a 61-year member of Greater New Hope Baptist church and has been married to Brenda for 41 years.They have two adult children Tammy Bush-Nimmer, and Attorney Gordon D. Bush, II, Kappa Alpha Psi, who is also a recipient of prestigious “Centennial Founders Club” Honors.

Bush has received honorary doctorates for his service to his country and his steadfast dedication to building his home city. His biography and list of accomplishments is so expansive that it has been recognized on a national level. All of Bush’s endeavors in politics, military, and city planning come from a spirit of service to humanity, as was taught to him by his mother from an early age.

“My mother always said to me.. remember to look out for the other fellow and that you got two arms,” Bush says. “If you need a hand, you’ll see your right hand…if you later see that you need to help someone, you’ve got the other arm where you’ll see another hand to help others…She always told us…to look out for the other person and try to help somebody.”

Bush has successfully made a career and name for himself by extending a hand to those who need help. Students wishing to apply for the Gordon D. Bush Scholarship need not only compose a well-written essay but show that reaching out that other hand makes the most difference.

Students interested in applying for the scholarship must write a typed essay of about 2,500 words with appropriately cited references. The deadline for the essays is November 1, and submissions should be directed to Dr. Carly Hayden Foster.

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