ESTERO _ Former First Lady Barbara Bush led a night of reading, tapping into a wit that foreshadowed what audience members would hear from renowned authors who spoke after her on Friday night at the Hyatt Coconut Point in Estero.
The announcement of the improving health of her husband, former President George H.W. Bush after he spent several weeks in the hospital, drew a less-audible reaction from the sold-out audience than her announcement about his socks.
"My George is 88 and mostly in a wheelchair, but I still have absolutely no control over him," Barbara Bush said as photographs of her recovering husband at various worldly events flashed on screens to each side of her. "Most people were looking at Conan O'Brien's hair, until they saw George's socks."
The former president donned bright socks with eye-catching designs while wearing pants just short enough to reveal the socks in photographs.
As the socks got brighter in each picture shown, his pant legs also got shorter.
"Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," she said as she strutted on the edge of the stage, pulling up her pant legs to reveal bright reddish-pink striped socks up to her knees underneath her understated black pants, topped with a black shirt, purple shawl and her signature pearls.
"Pretty good-looking for 87 years old, don't you think?" her son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said as he joined his mother on the stage.
The 13th annual Celebration of Reading event hosted by the Bush family raised $1.1 million, along with another $1.5 million of in-kind contributions from the Barbara Bush Foundation, he said.
Two people received standing ovations in the lineup of famous writers — Barbara Bush and a former high school dropout who is among millions to benefit from the annual Celebration of Reading event and the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Reading.
Christine Adkison drew tears, laughter and applause as she told her story of growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania, raised by loving parents who were illiterate and dropped out of high school. She, too, dropped out of high school, married and had children by 16. She had four kids by age 24 and was low on confidence, she said.
The turn-around began for Adkison with a job as a school custodian. She learned of the Family Literacy Program. She began learning to read. She finished high school a decade or two late. Her eldest daughter then used the same program to get her GED.
Adkison earned her associate degree and is working on her bachelor's degree as she teaches preschool.
"The teachers told me I was smart," she said, smiling and recalling her days of returning to school. "I earned my GED in a year."
She wants to become a full-time teacher.
Another former teacher who spoke was Bill O'Reilly, historian, author and host of the O'Reilly Factor on Fox News.
It was his former days as a history schoolteacher decades ago that inspired his books on former Presidents John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln, as he sought to motivate America's young people to care more about their nation's history.
Gary Chartrand, of Jacksonville, was among those in the audience. Chartrand, the chair of the state Board of Education, was grateful for O'Reilly's support for the event and the chance to see him in-person.
"Obviously literacy is very important. Jeb (Bush) started 10 years ago reforming education in Florida and we want to continue that momentum," Chartrand said. "It's exciting that Bill O'Reilly is here. I watch him on TV all the time, so it's great to see him live tonight."
Equally impressed with the lineup of speaking authors was Jill Rochette, of Naples.
"I just got to talk to (best-selling novelist) Harlan Coben. We both went to high school together in Livingston, N.J. We celebrated our 30th high school reunion not long ago," she said.
Dr. Arthur Agatston, author of the South Beach Diet, shared his experience of sitting and eating a meal with Barbara Bush.
"You're not finishing your vegetables,'" he said of the former First Lady's dining habits. " 'Should I finish my dessert?'" he said, repeating more of the experience.
Coben joked about food in another context.
"A novel is like a sausage. You might like the final taste. You don't want to know how it was made," Coben said.