Utahns who know George Bush say that recent portrayals of him as a religious, family-loving, compassionate "common man" are not gimmicks, that they really do describe well the man who became the 41st president Friday.

For example, T.H. Bell, the former U.S. education secretary from Utah, received an extended personal glimpse in 1983 of how Bush acts around his family when he spent several days at Bush's home in Kennebunkport, Maine."The National Governor's Conference was holding its convention in Portland, Maine, and I wanted a chance to lobby them for some education reform. George offered to invite them over to his home for a barbecue for me to talk to them and to have me and my wife up for a few days.

"He is very active physically and athletically. He would play tennis and basketball with his sons, and he would hold his own. He loves his boat, a high-powered thing that is airborne half the time - especially if George is behind the wheel," Bell said.

In fact, Bush's wild boating led to then-Missouri Gov. Kit Bond bumping his head and cutting it open.

"Along about Saturday night, George and Barbara asked us if we would go to church with them the next morning. We did, and went to the Episcopal Church there in town. As we were riding in the chauffeur-driven vice president's limousine, we passed George's 83-year-old mother bicycling to the same church. She didn't want a ride," he said.

Bell said the Bushes have taken time to stay in touch through the years, even though their acquaintance was only casual.

After he recently won a national education award, Bell said he received a handwritten letter from Barbara Bush congratulating him. When early in the campaign Bell said on a national TV program that he supported Bush, Bush wrote him a note then too.

"That sort of thing is tough to do when you are as busy as he is," Bell said.

Richard Richards, a former Utah Republican Party chairman who was a senior adviser to Bush during the campaign, said Bush is well known for his personal notes.

Richards opens his desk drawer and produces a few he has received. One came after Richards and Bush had a heated discussion early in the campaign when Richards urged Bush to attack Michael Dukakis more vigorously, but Bush did not want to. The note thanked Richards for honestly stressing his view and said Bush would re-think his position.

Richards also said, "Barbara Bush is one of my favorite ladies in the world. She's loving and caring. She's the sort of person who would be a good (LDS Church) Relief Society president."

Steve Studdert, an aide to Bush who also planned his inaugural, traveled with him every day of the presidential campaign after the Republican convention, and traveled with the Bushes many years ago in China.

"He really does have common ideals. George and Barbara are very caring. George cares a lot about individuals. He called me many times about the inauguration, saying he wanted to invite this old war buddy or that old neighbor," he said.

Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, said he saw the compassionate side of Bush when they and Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, traveled to comfort the families of the astronauts killed in the Challenger disaster.

Garn said that meeting was one of the most moving experiences of his life, and that he found Bush to be "personable, warm, poised, gracious and sensitive."

He said Bush took more interest in the families than he was really required to, including opening his home to them and working to keep the astronauts' memories and dreams alive by helping establish the Challenger Center.

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, said he, like most other Republicans, is a convert to Bush. "I remember listening to him in 1979 in Salt Lake City when he was running for president. Norm Bangerter asked me what I thought, and I said, `He's nice enough, I guess. But he doesn't do much for me.' "

Hansen said as he has come to know Bush more, he has discovered, "He's not a quick sale like Ronald Reagan. But he is solid. His personality includes a great modesty."

Hansen said he has also found Bush to have a "delightful sense of humor and charm" and found him to care deeply for his family.