The George W. Bush Presidential Center opens to the public

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by MARJORIE OWENS and STEVE STOLER

WFAA

Posted on May 1, 2013 at 8:55 AM

Updated Wednesday, May 1 at 5:31 PM

DALLAS - The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, located on the Southern Methodist University campus, opened to the public at 9 a.m. Wednesday following a brief ceremony.

Last week, it was the five living presidents and myriad dignitaries from across the world who packed the center's dedication. 

On Wednesday, 43 children from across North Texas were chosen by their school district superintendents to be the first visitors to the center. They were greeted by the former president himself in the replica of the Oval Office.

"Welcome to the Oval Office," he said. "I'm very excited you're here. You're our first guests, and we're thrilled you're here."

He followed up the welcoming with a photo session with the group. Students said the 43rd president's presence was a surprise.

"We were in the Oval Office, just taking pictures, just a group picture, and he walked in," said Christian Henley, one of the students.  "It was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had.  He was so nice and friendly.  I felt like I knew him."

On April 25, President Barack Obama and former presidents Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter joined former President George W. Bush for a dedication ceremony at the library and museum, which is operated by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The 226,000 square foot complex houses two facilities, including the library and museum and the Bush Institute.

"We hope that people come in, even if they have preconceived notions, we want to hope that they take away more knowledge," said John Orrell, a spokesman for the center. "We're not trying to change people's minds or anything. We are run by the National Archives; it's a non-partisan organization, and this is not a political organization here. We're just here to tell the history of the eight years President Bush was in office."

On Wednesday, about 100 people waited for the center's doors to finally open. 

"It's absolutely overwhelming," said Larry Touchan, an Amarillo resident who was on a honeymoon alongside his new wife Wolanda. "It's nearly impossible to describe my feeling about George Bush and this whole museum. He's just a great guy." 

On the tour, visitors saw a lion gifted to Bush from the president of Tanzania. There are bronze statues of the presidential dogs: Barney, Miss Beazley and Spot. There's a tuxedo and a gown won by the president and First Lady Laura Bush when they hosted Queen Elizabeth at the White House. Also on display is a red gown worn by Mrs. Bush at a state dinner. 

But it's the interactive exhibits like the Decision Points Theatre that seem to be attracting the most attention. Visitors can choose a crisis –– Iraq, the 2007 troop buildup, Hurricane Katrina or the financial crisis, which led to Bush signing the Toxic Asset Relief Program into law in 2008 –– and choose how they would act as commander-in-chief.

"Different advisors tell them to 'do this,' 'no, don't do that, do this,'" said Amy Polley, the museum curator. "And all the meanwhile, press are coming in saying, 'What are you going to do?' And they have to make a decision." 

Dylan Kort of West Junior High was one of the first to play the decision game. 

"For me, to go in there and realize there are lives on the line, it was just very real," he said.

WFAA's Marcus Moore contributed to this report

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