Dressed in a fuchsia suit jacket, red blouse, brown skirt and her trademark three-strand pearl choker, first lady Barbara Bush started her day Wednesday in the Oval Office explaining her attire to her husband.

"You know what he asked me? He asked me if I was color blind. He was serious. This is my Dick Tracy suit," Bush quipped Wednesday in the opening address of the American Association of Adult and Continuing Education conference at the Salt Palace.Bush, who championed literacy long before her husband became president, told the 1,600 at the conference that she did not fully understand the challenges educators face when teaching adult learners to read until she visited a Maryland classroom where immigrants were being taught English as a second language.

The students spoke at least a dozen different native languages but their English was remarkable. "Difficult seems too mild a word for the job that teacher was doing. But doing it she was," Bush said.

Though the literacy movement includes people like the first lady and the volunteers who teach reading, Bush said educators are the backbone of the cause.

"You people are the backbone of America's literacy movement. You are the educators on the front line. Very little would have changed in the last decade were it not for your efforts," she said.

Co-author of "Millie's Book," a look at White House life through the eyes of presidential pooch Millie, Bush said reading is such an important part of her life that she packs her books before she packs her clothes on any given trip.

"I have a waterproof Walkman so I can listen to books while I'm swimming laps. It's a little weird, I admit," she said.

While she reads for knowledge and enjoyment, Bush said the nation's literacy programs are "not just a matter of basic skills and earning a diploma." Literacy is a family issue, she said.

She likened teaching reading to planting trees, an act which is a legacy for generations to come. "Someone once said teachers affect eternity, and no one knows where the influence will end. Nowhere is that more true than adult education."

Bush said her schedule has taken her to two foreign countries and 16 states since Labor Day. She also was in town to stump for Republican congressional candidate Genevieve Atwood, who faces Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, in the Nov. 6 election. (See story on B1.)

"It's kind of like, if this is Wednesday, it must be Salt Lake City. Busy as we are, I wouldn't have missed this conference for the world, not if I could help it," she said.

She thanked the educators for their tireless fight against illiteracy. "Learning is the thing for all of us. Thank you for helping people learn things they'll never forget. It's why you are here and why I'm here to cheer you on."


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Students see Bush

Children in a sixth-grade class at Parkside Elementary in Murray District have been studying a biography of President and Barbara Bush during the past year. When they learned the first lady was coming to Utah, they invited her to visit their school.

That wasn't possible with Mrs. Bush's busy itinerary, but when others learned of the students' desire to meet the president's wife, they made special arrangements to get some Parkside representatives to the Marriott Hotel for a reception honoring the first lady.

Those chosen to attend were Ryan Vlaardingerbroek, Cody Hickman, Chris Williams and Arley Sheldon.