HOUSTON -- President Bush often has cited his work in 1973 with a now-defunct urban program for troubled teens as the source for his belief in "compassionate conservatism."
"I realized then that a society can change and must change one person at a time," Bush said in a video shown at the 2000 Republican National Convention about his tenure at PULL, the Professional United Leadership League, whose executive director, John White, had played tight end for the Houston Oilers in the early 1960s.
But former associates of White, who died in 1988, have disputed in recent interviews much of Bush's version of his time with the program.
"I was working full time for an inner-city poverty program known as Project PULL," Bush said in his 1999 autobiography, "A Charge to Keep." "My friend John White . . . asked me to come help him run the program. . . . I was intrigued by John's offer. . . . Now I had a chance to help people."
But White's administrative assistant and others associated with PULL, speaking on the record for the first time, say Bush was not helping to run the program and White had not asked him to come aboard.
Instead, the associates said, White told them he agreed to take Bush on as a favor to Bush's father, who was honorary cochairman of the program at the time, and the younger Bush was unpaid. They say White told them Bush had gotten into some kind of trouble but White never gave them specifics.
"We didn't know what kind of trouble he'd been in, only that he'd done something that required him to put in the time," said Althia Turner, White's administrative assistant.
"John said he was doing a favor for George's father because an arrangement had to be made for the son to be there," said Willie Frazier, also a former player for the Houston Oilers and a PULL summer volunteer in 1973.
Fred Maura, a close friend of White, refers to Bush as "43," for 43d president, and his father as "41," for the 41st president.
"John didn't say what kind of trouble 43 was in -- just that he had done something and he [White] made a deal to take him in as a favor to 41 to get some funding," Maura said.
"He didn't help run the program. I was in charge of him, and I wouldn't say I helped run the program, either," said David Anderson, a recreational director at PULL. A White House spokesman, told about the interviews, denied that Bush had been in trouble or that the elder Bush, who was ambassador to the United Nations at the time, had arranged the job at PULL.
But he acknowledged that Bush was not paid for his work. Bush's father declined a request for an interview.
"It was incorrect to say he was working there," spokesman Trent Duffy said. "He was doing volunteer service and getting paid by the Guard."
Much like Bush's disputed 1972 service in the Alabama National Guard, his tenure at PULL has been the subject of speculation over the years.
Knight Ridder began asking questions more than two months ago about Bush's service at as part of an effort to fill in the facts about his early adulthood.
No documents from Bush's time with PULL exist. The agency, which closed in 1989, left most of its records behind when it moved to a new location in 1984. The building's owner, Southern Leather Co., said those were discarded. No one seems to know what happened to any remaining records after 1989. White's widow declined to be interviewed.
But many people recall Bush's tenure at the agency.
Turner, who said she has avoided reporters for years, agreed to be interviewed only after phoning her pastor for advice.
When she hung up the phone, she turned to a reporter and said: "My pastor says if you found me, I should tell the truth." "Bush was really into it and rarely missed a day," said Ernie Ladd, a founder and former defensive tackle for the Houston Oilers and the Kansas City Chiefs who was featured in the 2000 Republican National Convention video.
"I just don't recall other volunteers doing that, the way Bush did," said Oscar McClendon, who was assistant recreational director when Bush was there.
All agree Bush, who was 26 at the time, connected well with the teens, many of whom had been expelled from school. Ladd says Bush was "an excellent bridge for the kids."
"He connected them to the white community on a level they could understand," said Ladd, who is now a minister in Louisiana.
Others said whatever the reason Bush started work at PULL, it was a long time ago.
"Let's leave it like that," Maura said, adding: "43 did more good being in trouble than a lot of people not in trouble. The guy knew he needed to change his life, and he did."