“I don’t think even my kids know some of these stories,” Philip Zegarelli, the Village Manager of Briarcliff Manor, remarked off-handedly while reminiscing about President George H.W. Bush. The media coverage of the 41st President following his death on November 30th of last year brought up a lot of memories for most Americans. However, most of us don’t share the same type of memories of Bush as Zegarelli. That’s due to Zegarelli’s personal friendship with the one-time commander-in-chief — a friendship that stretched all the way back to the early 1970’s.
“I was like the next to the last individual to be commissioned by the NROTC (Naval Reserve Office Training Corps.) at Columbia in 1970. I went into the Navy and went into what was called Operation Deep Freeze, which was unbelievable,” Zegarelli said. “After I did that, they offered me a spot—mission to the U.N.”
It was then that Zegarelli first met Bush, who was appointed by Richard Nixon to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Zegarelli was serving as an aide to a three-star admiral when Ambassador Bush came to him with an unusual request. The admiral had a 40-foot-long wooden boat to transport between ships in the fleet, and Bush wanted to take the boat around Manhattan island with delegates from other countries, using the New York waterway to wow his guests while he built a rapport with them. Zegarelli, who was in charge of putting this plan together, explained, “We used to do a circle line, an Ambassador Bush circle line around Manhattan. I was narrating while he was jawboning these ambassadors. I learned a lot on how he operated and was able to do that.”
Of course the former president’s late wife also earned a reputation for being outspoken, something Zegarelli also experienced first-hand. “Barbara Bush actually met my future wife,” Zegarelli said. “The French fleet was in for an event and we had a reception. A friend of mine, who’s now my brother-in-law, brought his wife’s sister. I was going through the line, and Barbara Bush said, ‘Phil you better grab her and marry her.’”
Zegarelli kept in touch with Bush over the years, sharing with him a favorite biography of Theodore Roosevelt and even being a guest during Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration when Bush became the 43rd Vice President of the United States. More than anything, though, it was the life lessons he received from Bush that truly left an impression and helped guide him during his political career — he served as trustee and mayor for what was then North Tarrytown and later Sleepy Hollow before his current role as Village Manager of Briarcliff Manor — and his private life.
For instance, back during his U.N. days, Zegarelli received word that a horse named after his father was racing in Saratoga. Feeling good about the race, he took up a collection from other Navy buddies to place a bet, and when Bush got wind of the plan, he wanted in on the action.
“So, he gave me ten dollars, and I said I’d bet it win, place, or show. He said, ‘No. If you think it’s going to win, put it on to win,’” Zegarelli recalled. “I went to the nearest OTB. I got all these tickets for everybody. I had a couple hundred dollars, which was a lot back then. Son of a gun, the horse wins, and Bush probably won the most single amount. You learn in that case if you’re sure of something, go off and do it. He did well, and he said, ‘The next time you have a sure bet, let me know.’”
On another occasion from around that time period, news came in that Israel had shot down a Libyan airliner. Zegarelli was given the daunting task of briefing the ambassador on the details of the event, such as the make of the plane, how many people were aboard, etc. After laying out the specifics, Zegarelli was particularly taken by Bush’s reaction. “He gave me a big thank you, showed his appreciation and it really made my day, because it was panic city going up there in the elevator and then a sense of relief coming back down,” Zegarelli said. “In hindsight, I’m saying to myself, ‘He was a Navy pilot, he was shot down, he’s been in government, he probably knew damn well what the plane was.’ Maybe not all the details, but he made me feel good!”
The way Pres. Bush treated others was just one of many important examples he handed down to the younger man. Zegarelli said, “They weren’t just events, they were a type of learning experience that had an application on how you should handle yourself.”