Remembrances of Lady Bird Johnson

In honor of her centennial, we asked several individuals who knew her well to share stories about Lady Bird Johnson:

Ira Guyton, LBJ Presidential Library Security Guard
Mrs. Johnson always spoke to us when we were sitting in the guards’ booth. Close to Thanksgiving time – [the guards would] have what you call a potluck. They would bring the vegetables and things. I would bring the good ‘ole barbeque from Lockhart. We had been doing this for a while.

So, one day close to Thanksgiving we were doing this, and Mrs. Johnson came in. She was in good health, and she would come and work in her office. So, she smelled the barbeque and said “Golly, what is that? That sure smells good.” The lady guard, Mrs. Vicki Hadlock, said, “We had some barbeque Mrs. Johnson. Would you like to have some?” And she said, “Well, no, maybe next time. Would y’all let me know?”

And so next time we had it, we let her know ahead of time that we were going to have the Thanksgiving lunch. So we brought the barbeque in, and the food and everything, and we set a table in the hallway downstairs. About 11:30, we had the table set up, and she sat there in that hallway, and ate that good barbeque. She joined us a couple of times. At first, we were kind of afraid to do that, because you know, she’s the ex-President’s wife. She’s a famous person. We didn’t know she could eat like we could. But she sat there and ate the barbeque. She was just a nice person. She was no stranger. And the daughters carry on in the same way.

Marge Morton, Special Assistant to the Director, LBJ Presidential Library, and former Social Secretary to Mrs. Johnson
Mrs. Johnson spent weekdays in her office at the Library, but she was always eager to go to the LBJ Ranch on Friday afternoons, usually anticipating the arrival of house guests for the weekend.

During those years, the National Park Service provided hourly bus tours. As they passed the Ranch house, the buses stopped while the passengers listened to Mrs. Johnson’s recorded narration. They were frequently surprised to see Mrs. Johnson emerge from the house, waving and welcoming them. The bus windows would be filled with camera lenses as photos captured the smiling and gracious former First Lady.

On one occasion, after luncheon, Mrs. Johnson suggested that her houseguests join her on the porch outside the West Room to greet the buses. On that very special afternoon, visitors stopping at the Ranch house were greeted by Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford and Rosalyn Carter. It is heartwarming to reflect on what the diaries and cameras of those happy tourists recorded on that memorable bus ride.

Patricia Burchfield, Curator, George Bush Presidential Library and Museum and former Registrar, LBJ Presidential Library
In October 1984, President Reagan and Congress could not see eye-to-eye on the federal budget, so all of the federal employees were sent home. As the registrar for the LBJ Library, I was scheduled to meet Mrs. Johnson at the LBJ Ranch to inventory head of state gifts and artifacts on loan to the Ranch. Unknowingly, I arrived at the Ranch around10:00 a.m. Mrs. Johnson met me on the sidewalk and said that I wasn't supposed to work that day because the federal government had shut down. We both looked at each other and rolled our eyes and I said, "Let's get to work." (Actions definitely frowned on in this day and age.) She smiled and said, "Let's!"

So away we went, locating artifacts in the house—upstairs and downstairs. Lunch was served and the cook (I don't remember her name), James (her right-hand man at the Ranch), Mrs. Johnson and I sat down in the dining room to fried chicken, fried okra, corn, turnip greens, and fried tomatoes. We looked out the big dining room window and talked about the Ranch and rain and cattle. After lunch, we jumped in her car and headed to the guest houses and located more artifacts on my list.

We finished up the inventory in her bedroom while she told me lots of good stories about each object. Mrs. Johnson said that we were done and it was now time to go hot tubbing! Then she went to her bathroom, opened a drawer full of bathing suits, and told me to grab one and put it on. She'd meet me at the hot tub just outside her bedroom. Well, I was so tickled! We sat in the hot tub wiggling our toes and drinking a couple of beers. We talked about our upcoming Christmas plans and presents we were still looking for. Too much fun.

I know I broke the speed limit several times as I drove home that evening and I think I burned up the phones lines in Austin that night calling all my folks and friends and shouting...."Guess who I hot tubbed with today???"

Mrs. Bess Abell, White House Social Secretary in the LBJ Administration
In August 1962, we took a trip to Lebanon, Turkey, Iran, Greece, Cyprus and Italy that included an unplanned side trip which made me realize even more what a special person Lady Bird Johnson was and how her smooth and gentle personality was not a true reflection of the determination and resolve that guided her inner self.

Air Force Two had just landed in Beirut after flying across the Atlantic and the length of the Mediterranean. As I opened the door to my hotel room the phone was ringing. Mrs. Johnson’s cheery voice was on the line: “Bess, would you see if you can find a State Department car and guide who would take us to Baalbek.”

“Mrs. Johnson,” I pleaded, “this is a rest stop!” She did not consider “rest” a good use of her time.

“We may never pass this way again, and I really want to see Baalbek.”

I had never heard of Baalbek and knew none of the rich history of the amazing archeological site that stretches back to 2500 BC and beyond. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Johnson did know about the old city and its layers of civilization built and rebuilt after wars and earthquakes, by Phoenicians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Christians.

Soon we were winding our way over the Lebanon Mountains, passing through groves of olive trees and the lush fruit orchards of the Beqaa Valley headed for the ancient temple city. Tucked in her purse, as usual, was a small spiral book with lined pages. She used to take notes, often in Gregg shorthand, to record descriptions of people, markets, landscapes, and on that day, the bicycle-riding delivery men balancing stacks of bread fresh from the oven.

Except for Mrs. Johnson’s continuing sense of adventure and, thankfully, for prodding me along, I would have missed Baalbek. I also would have missed one of the most important lessons she taught me. Stay curious. Keep your enthusiasm. Don’t miss any of the advantages that life offers.

Spotlight: Michael Gillette

Michael L. Gillette has been Executive Director of Humanities Texas since 2003. Dr. Gillette directed the LBJ Library’s oral history program from 1976 to 1991 and served as Director of the Center for Legislative Archives from 1991 to 2003,with responsibility for the official records of the United States Senate and the House of Representatives at the National Archives. In December, Oxford University Press will publish Gillette's book, Lady Bird Johnson, An Oral History. Copies of the book will be available for sale and signing at The Store at LBJ on December 22.

Mark K. Updegrove: What was the impetus of the book?

Michael Gillette: The opportunity to present Lady Bird Johnson’s story in her own words was the impetus. I had always marveled at her exquisite command of the language; her reminiscences were so fresh, vivid, and seasoned with charming southern expressions. But I was also fascinated by the remarkable transformation of a shy, isolated country girl into one of the most admired First Ladies in American history. Her extraordinary growth—intellectually, socially, and politically—is an inspiring story worth telling.

MKU: How did you come to do your oral histories with Mrs. Johnson?

MG: Her unique knowledge of President Johnson as well as the importance of her own story made her a priority for the LBJ Library’s oral history program. Although her White House diary and files provided an extensive record of her five years as First Lady, her life before 1963 was not documented as well. With her characteristic thoroughness, she spent many, many hours preparing for and recording our thirty-seven oral history sessions, which spanned fourteen years.

MKU: How would you characterize her?

MG: She was a strong, smart southern woman of remarkable warmth, grace, and sensitivity to the needs of others. Her self-discipline, perseverance, and unerring good judgment servedher well in public life, but she never lost her youthful modesty, her adventurous spirit, or her extraordinary capacity for friendship.

MKU: Do you have a favorite story about Mrs. Johnson?

MG: It was the final day of LBJ’s 1948 Senate race against Coke Stevenson. Mrs. Johnson and Marietta Brooks had been driving around the state, speaking to various women’s organizations.They were now en route to an afternoon tea in Seguin and from there to the campaign’s finale, an evening mass rally in San Antonio. There Lady Bird was scheduled to make her debut speaking to a large audience. Somehow, Marietta lost control of thecar. It skidded off the highway, rolled over several times, and landed in a ditch. Undaunted, Mrs. Johnson managed to crawl outthrough a window, climb up the muddy incline, and flag down an elderly farmer in a passing car. Together they helped Marietta out of the car and drove to Seguin. After checking Marietta into a hospital, Lady Bird changed her dress, borrowed a pair of hose, cleaned up her shoes, and attended the tea, “a little bit wobbly,” but with “a big story to tell.” She then got a ride to San Antonio and gave her speech at the huge rally, making sure that no one told LBJ of her mishap. There was steel in that woman.

MKU: The Postal Service recently announced that they would be issuing a Lady Bird Johnson postage stamp. She’s one of just five First Ladies honored by the post office, the last one being Eleanor Roosevelt. Why is she so important as a First Lady?

MG: She was important in three respects. As First Lady, she effectively championed a visionary domestic agenda, the significanceof which the public has increasingly appreciated: Head Start with its innovative early childhood education, clean air and water,and the beautification of our cities, highways, and countryside. She also used the platform of the White House to promote the arts and humanities, the addition of new national parks, and what we now call “cultural heritage tourism.” Mrs. Johnson was also a critical factor in LBJ’s political ascent. When Lindy Boggs phoned her friend Lady Bird to tell her that she was planning to run for her late husband’s congressional seat, Mrs. Johnson’s response was: “But, Lindy, can you do it without a wife?” Both women appreciated the significance of that rhetorical question.

Yet Lady Bird Johnson’s influence was far greater than that of most political spouses. Her oral history reveals how central her role was at each stage of his career. Finally, her significant contributions in her four decades after leaving the White House addedeven more luster to her stature. She continued her beautification efforts in her beloved Austin, where she created the Lady BirdJohnson Wildflower Center. As Liz Carpenter once observed, “Mrs. Johnson was wise to pick a cause that was so visible--one that we could see all around us.” Indeed she was.