Former President George H.W. Bush quietly sponsored and exchanged letters with a Filipino boy for years without revealing his true identity — and the child was “speechless” when he finally learned that his buddy was the former world leader.
Identifying himself only as George or G. Walker in their correspondence, Bush began writing to Timothy, then a 7-year-old boy living in the Philippines, in 2001 as part of a sponsorship through the Christian nonprofit organization Compassion International.
“I want to be your new pen pal,” Bush wrote in his first letter to Timothy. “I am an old man, 77 years old, but I love kids; and though we have not met I love you already. I live in Texas. I will write you from time to time. Good luck.”
Subsequent letters shared by Compassion International reveal the warm relationship that developed between Bush and Timothy. The former president, who died on Nov. 30, wrote to the boy about various parts of his life, including sending pictures of his dog, Sadie, offering facts about Texas and sharing where he traveled in the United States.
Timothy, in response, shared photos, poems and drawings, and always inquired after Bush. In one letter, he said his family particularly loved the photo of Sadie.
“I hope you won’t get tired of writing to me,” Timothy wrote at one point.
Bush and Timothy exchanged letters for about three years, Wess Stafford, Compassion International’s president from 1993 to 2013, tells TIME. Stafford says the former president and the boy were connected after Bush attended a Christmas concert in 2001, where the musicians asked the audience if they would like to sponsor a child.
“His hand goes up, and he says, ‘I want one,'” Stafford says.
Bush never fully revealed who he was to Timothy, based on the advice of his security, who said the boy could be put at risk if word got out that he was in touch with a former U.S. president, according to Stafford. While Bush kept key personal details hidden, the former president sometimes offered hints about his identity, including writing once that he “got to go to the White House at Christmas time.”
Timothy, who was told about Bush’s identity after he graduated from the Compassion International program in 2010, was shocked to find out that “Walker” was former U.S. president George H.W. Bush, Stafford says.
“He was speechless,” he says. “He didn’t know what to say.”
Jim McGrath, spokesman for the Bush family, confirmed the authenticity of the letters in an email to TIME. In a tweet earlier this week, McGrath said he “had no idea” Bush had carried on a correspondence with Timothy, but was “not the least bit surprised.”
“He spent his entire life reaching out and trying to help lift the lives of others, both in and — as we see here — out of elected office,” McGrath said.