Government

Cedar Rapids woman attending George H.W. Bush funeral in Texas

Sally Novetzke served as U.S. ambassador to Malta under Bush, remained a family friend for decades

Sally Novetzke of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, former U.S. ambassador to Malta who was appointed by George H.W. Bush looks at a book of photographs from the 25th Anniversary of the George H. W. Bush Presidency at her home in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. Novetzke and her husband, Dick, became good friends with the Bushes and visited them several times in Kennebunkport, Maine. Novetzke will attend President Bush’s funeral in Houston on Thursday morning. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Sally Novetzke of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, former U.S. ambassador to Malta who was appointed by George H.W. Bush looks at a book of photographs from the 25th Anniversary of the George H. W. Bush Presidency at her home in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. Novetzke and her husband, Dick, became good friends with the Bushes and visited them several times in Kennebunkport, Maine. Novetzke will attend President Bush’s funeral in Houston on Thursday morning. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — At a sparsely attended political event in 1979, in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, Sally Novetzke met George H.W. Bush for the first time.

The West Texas oil magnate was campaigning for president, although he later become Ronald Reagan’s vice president.

“There were very few people there, so we got to talk with George and Barb a lot,” recalled Novetzke, 86, of Cedar Rapids. On the drive back to Cedar Rapids, she told her husband, Dick: “Well, I found my candidate.”

Bush saw something special in Novetzke, too. The next day she got a call from his campaign asking if she would serve as Linn County chairwoman. Later, after Bush was elected president in 1988, he chose Novetzke as the United States ambassador to Malta.

After nearly 40 years of friendship, Novetzke is attending President Bush’s invite-only funeral in Houston Thursday. The 41st president died Friday at age 94.

“What inspired me was his past experience,” Novetzke said. “I always said he was everything but the clown in the circus. He was in the United Nations, he was an envoy to China, head of the GOP. He had so much experience, and he was very, very bright and articulate. He doesn’t offend anyone like some people we know. You just loved him the minute you saw him.”

Bush, or G.B. as Novetzke often called him, asked the Iowa Republican about moving to Washington and working for the party in the early 1980s, she said. Novetzke demurred because she still had a son in school.

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“I said ‘Call me when you’re president’,” Novetzke said. “And he did.”

A Bush staffer called in 1988 and asked if Novetzke wanted to be ambassador to Malta, a Mediterranean island country known for its stunning coastline, megalithic temples and the 1941 movie “The Maltese Falcon,” a fictional account of the country’s relationship with the Knights of Malta.

“They all spoke English because the Brits had been there for 150 years,” Novetzke said of people on the island.

Novetzke moved to Malta in 1989 as the U.S. was preparing to host a summit there with the Soviet Union. She led a team that coordinated the two-day meeting between Bush and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Malta Summit occurred on a cruise ship in international waters because there were fewer protocols than if they met on the island, she said. But the weather in December 1989 didn’t cooperate.

“Every day as the weather got worse, the ship came closer to shore,” Novetzke said.

Some say the summit started the Cold War thaw, with talks about arms control and plans for reunifying Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But Novetzke wasn’t in the room for most of these conversations, she said.

“I was so busy entertaining admirals for lunch or whatever,” Novetzke said, adding that she wondered at the time if she had been a man would she have been invited to the meetings. “I did see some of it and hear some of it, but I really wanted to be in on all of that.”

Sally and Dick Novetzke were close friends with George and Barbara Bush, vacationing with them in their Maine summer home in Kennebunkport and Camp David, she said. Dick Novetzke, who died in 2013, and George Bush both served as Navy pilots.

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During dinner parties, the couples played games, including charades, or put on music to dance, Novetzke said.

“Barb always had these very unusual puzzles that were out for anyone to work,” she said of the former first lady, who died in April. “We just enjoyed each other’s company.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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