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Jenna Bush Hager mourns her late father-in-law, who had polio

Jenna said her father-in-law, John Hager, who lived with the effects of polio for 45 years, was "compassionate, curious and kind."
/ Source: TODAY

Jenna Bush Hager is mourning the loss of her father-in-law, John Hager, whom she called "a giant of a man" following his death over the weekend.

The TODAY with Hoda & Jenna co-host shared on Instagram Monday that the father of her husband, Henry Hager, died at 83 on Sunday morning. She posted a series of sweet photos of him with her children.

"We lost my father-in-law, John Hager, Sunday morning," she wrote. "He was a giant of a man - although, I never saw him stand. He lived with polio — paralyzed from the waist down — in a wheel chair, for forty five years. Despite it all he lived life to the fullest — and was compassionate, curious and kind. And boy, will we miss him but as Poppy said: he is in a better place — 'in heaven, out of his wheel-chair and running.'"

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Jenna also shared her remembrances of her father-in-law with Hoda Kotb on TODAY Monday.

"We lost my beloved father-in-law, I feel so lucky that he was mine," Jenna said. "He was diagnosed with polio 45 years ago, but he never let it stop him."

Hager participated in 13 marathons with his wheelchair, according to Jenna.

"He always played with the kids," Jenna said. "He was on their level, he was down, and his name as a grandpa was Bumpy, and he was beloved."

The North Carolina native was an Army veteran who served as lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1998 to 2002 and later worked in the U.S. Department of Education under Jenna's father, former President George W. Bush.

"John Hager devoted his life to public service, and I admired his love for our country and for Virginia," Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement. "He served in the Army and worked as a businessman, but he will be remembered as a volunteer, an athlete, an author, and a patriot.

"I first met John after running for public office, and he helped me learn the job of being Lieutenant Governor. Anyone who worked in Virginia politics quickly learned that John was everywhere, and no one outworked him. He earned victory and knew defeat, and he kept going. John held fast to his principles, and he knew when to reach across the aisle to compromise. Our country misses his example."

Northam added that he has ordered Virginia state flags to be flown at half-staff for 10 days in honor of Hager.

"The flags in Virginia are half-mast for him because he was the first lieutenant governor in a wheelchair, so he just defied all expectations," Jenna said. "But more than that, he was a beloved husband and father and father-in-law and grandfather, and he will be so missed."

Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine also paid tribute to Hager.

“John Hager served his city, Commonwealth, and country well," he said in a statement to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "He inspired me. I’m proud to call him a friend, and Anne and I are thinking about Maggie and his wonderful family.”

Hager contracted polio in 1973, the year his first son, Jack, was born.

Jenna has worked over the years to bring awareness to polio after seeing her father-in-law live with the effects of the disease for decades.

She coordinated with UNICEF and Rotary International in 2016 for a PSA about eradicating the infectious illness, which disabled an average of more than 35,000 people each year in the 1940s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Polio, which is a disabling and life-threatening disease caused by the poliovirus that can cause paralysis, has been eradicated in the United States since 1979 thanks to a vaccine but is still a threat in other countries, according to the CDC.

"It’s strong, and like so many that face obstacles in their daily life, he’s overcome it in many ways," Jenna told People about her father-in-law in 2016. "But at the same time, I’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects it has not only on the person but their families. And I just don’t want any child to face what he’s faced."

"Up to 90%" of people infected with polio have no or very mild symptoms that easily go unrecognized, according to the World Health Organization. There is no cure for polio, just treatment to alleviate the symptoms, but it can be prevented through immunization with the vaccine.

"For some people who don’t have access to medication, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a mom in some of these (Third World) countries," Jenna told People. "It’s really important that we educate, as moms, the importance of vaccinations. With this vaccine, we can eradicate polio! Kids under 5 need to get the vaccine. There’s no cure, but with the vaccine, we can stop this disease."