Lady Bird Johnson - A Final Tribute

by Elizabeth Christian

Wife, mother, grandmother, conservationist, businesswoman, philanthropist, First Lady.

Lady Bird Johnson holds claim to all of those titles and more.

All her life, Mrs. Johnson has brought beauty to her sprawling family, to the Texas Hill Country she loves, and to the nation that loves her.

She inspired the passage of the Beautification Act of 1965–a bill her husband called a “gift” to his wife–which cemented environmentalism as a top priority in the United States. Married for four decades to one of the most powerful men in the world, Mrs. Johnson juggled extraordinarily demanding jobs as her husband’s closest advisor as he rose from Congressman to Senator to Vice President to President and as mother to daughters Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. After her husband’s death, she spent the next three and a half decades solidifying all that she had laid in place during their marriage.

Today, Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy lives on in the millions of blooms planted in the nation’s capital, in the sweeping banks of wildflowers lining U.S. highways, and in the charm of Austin’s revitalized Town Lake. An equally lasting legacy is her extraordinary family—Lynda Johnson Robb and her husband Charles; Luci Baines Johnson and her husband Ian Turpin; six granddaughters and one grandson; and 10 great-grandchildren.

Mrs. Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor in the East Texas town of Karnack on December 22, 1912. Her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, was owner of a general store. Her mother, Minnie Pattillo Taylor, died when Claudia was five years old, leaving the little girl and her two older brothers, Tommy and Tony, in the care of their father and their Aunt Effie. Legend has it that a nursemaid said Claudia was “as purty as a lady bird”; the sweet nickname suited her and stuck for life.

Mrs. Johnson graduated from Marshall High School in 1928 and attended Saint Mary's Episcopal School for Girls in Dallas from 1928 to 1930. She then entered The University of Texas at Austin, graduating in 1933 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and in 1934, with a Bachelor of Journalism with honors.

She met the tall, ambitious man whom she would marry when he was a Congressional secretary visiting Austin on official business. Lyndon Baines Johnson courted Lady Bird Taylor with all the single-minded energy he would later bring to elected office. They were engaged just seven weeks after their first date and married in November 1934. Mrs. Johnson recalled that “sometimes Lyndon simply [took] your breath away.” Her life with Lyndon Johnson was one of such achievement in politics, business and philanthropy it left those around them breathless, too.

Mrs. Johnson was independently a successful businesswoman. In 1943, Mrs. Johnson bought a failing low-power daytime-only Austin radio station with an inheritance from her mother. Armed with her journalism degree and a tireless work ethic, she took a hands-on ownership role, selling advertising, hiring staff, and even cleaning floors. Over time, her Austin broadcasting company grew to include an AM and FM radio station and a television station, all bearing the same call letters: KTBC. The family later expanded the LBJ holdings to stations in Waco and Corpus Christi and a cable television system. After selling the television station in 1972 and the cable system in the early ’90s, the family grew their radio interests in Austin to include six stations. Mrs. Johnson stayed actively involved in the LBJ Holding Company well into her eighties.

Lady Bird Johnson is probably best known for her support of her husband’s career. When Lyndon Johnson volunteered for the U.S. Navy in World War II, Mrs. Johnson ran his Congressional office, serving constituents’ needs in every way except voting. Her support for her husband’s political career continued throughout his years in government. She campaigned actively for his race for the Congress, Senate, vice presidency and presidency. In 1960, covered 35,000 miles for the Kennedy/Johnson ticket, and in 1964, she campaigned independently on a whistle-stop train throughout the South for the Johnson/Humphrey ticket. President Johnson paid her the highest of compliments, saying he thought that the voters “would happily have supported her over me.”

Lady Bird Johnson stood by her husband on the fateful November day in 1963 when Lyndon Johnson became the 36th President of the United States after the assassination of John Kennedy. Her official White House biography notes that her gracious personality and Texas hospitality did much to heal the pain of those dark days. She created a First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital and then expanded her program to include the entire nation. She was also highly involved in the President’s War on Poverty, focusing in particular on Project Head Start for preschool children.

While President Johnson was still in office, Mrs. Johnson played a key role in the plans to build the LBJ Library and Museum and the LBJ School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas. The Library is in the process of building the Lady Bird Johnson Center, consisting of educational classrooms and outdoor landscaping. After the Johnsons’ White House years ended in 1969, Mrs. Johnson authored A White House Diary, a memoir that drew on her considerable skills as a writer and historian. “I was keenly aware that I had a unique opportunity, a front row seat, on an unfolding story and nobody else was going to see it from quite the vantage point that I saw it.” She also co-authored Wildflowers Across America with Carlton Lees.

In December 1972, President and Mrs. Johnson gave the LBJ Ranch house and surrounding property to the people of the United States as a national historic site.

On her 70th birthday in 1982, Mrs. Johnson founded the National Wildflower Research Center, a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to the preservation and re-establishment of native plants in natural and planned landscapes. She donated funding and 60 acres of land in Austin to establish the organization. In December 1997, the property was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in honor of Mrs. Johnson's 85th birthday. In 2006, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center became a part of The University of Texas at Austin, guaranteeing its permanent place in the national landscape—and ensuring that Lady Bird Johnson’s name will live on in the hearts of Americans.