The day was Thursday, Aug. 30, 2001. Gov. Jeb Bush walked up to the microphone and he waited for the long round of applause from adults and children alike to subside before he addressed the large crowd at the dedication ceremony for the brand-new Villages Charter Middle School.
The frequent Villages visitor and brother of the president of the United States then told the hundreds in attendance about the importance of children receiving a quality education like the one they’d get at The Villages Charter School.
Again, a long round of applause could be heard.
Bush, who like his brother, George W., received a huge amount of support and financial backing from The Villages Developer and many of the community’s employees, so it was no surprise that he would accept the invitation to serve as the keynote speaker at the dedication ceremony for The Villages Charter Middle School.
As spectators gathered that morning to get a glimpse of the school and hear the governor speak, many were blown away by the first-class building that would house sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Part of the high-tech structure had been set aside for future growth and was still being finished.
But on that afternoon – just 12 days before our country would face devastation from a terrorist attack like no other – the buzz was about the top-notch facilities and the high degree of education students were receiving in the school that had been created by The Villages developer for his grandchildren and the children of employees hired to work in the community.
“This is way nicer than my high school,” one Villager said that morning as he spoke with an acquaintance who was working at the event.
“Heck, it’s nicer than my college,” his friend quickly pointed out.
A short time later, when Bush was introduced, a rousing round of applause could be heard for several minutes. He was positioned in front of bleachers decked out with patriotic bunting and filled with charter school students.
It was a warm summer day and some of the students appeared to occasionally lose interest. A couple could even be seen with the heads in their hands. But for the most part, they enjoyed being in a setting with the governor of the Sunshine State speaking about them.
Of course, part of their comfort level with Bush stemmed from the fact that he had spent some time with them in their classrooms prior to the dedication ceremony. Bush had been joined in those classrooms by Commissioner of Education Charlie Crist, who would become Florida’s 44th governor in January 2007 and eventually would hold the distinction of losing a statewide general election as a Republican, Democrat and Independent candidate.
During his speech, Bush lauded The Villages Charter School system and suggested it could become a model for others to emulate across the state. He praised everyone involved in the facility for making education a top priority. And he offered words of thanks to the teachers and administrators for making sure that each child would receive a year’s education in a year – something Bush said he “dreamed about” every day.
The event also proved popular with Villagers, many of whom arrived early to secure a favorable spot to hear the governor speak. Some in attendance were retired educators and they talked about how important it was to have a governor who made education a priority. And like others in attendance, they marveled at the middle school and the first-class facilities being used to educate charter school children.
Another celebrity also attended the charter school dedication and then appeared at Spanish Springs Town Square later in the day. Country singer Lee Greenwood, who had family ties to Leesburg and would go onto to become a regular at Villages events, sang at both places.
Greenwood performed some of his hits but the one that stood out among both crowds was “God Bless the USA,” which Greenwood had recorded in the early 1980s. The song made somewhat of a resurgence during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. But nobody in attendance at the charter school dedication could know that they were listening to the song that would pretty much become the anthem of patriotic support following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Bush would continue to support The Villages Charter School throughout his two terms, which ended in January 2007. He continued to make frequent trips to The Villages and would oftentimes meet with Villages Developer H. Gary Morse, who was one of President Bush’s biggest high-dollar supporters. And he would return to the community in May 2006 to deliver the commencement address at the first-ever Villages High School graduation.