Remembering Harry Middleton

Jan 20, 2017

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Memorial Service

Harry Middleton, Former director of the LBJ Presidential Library,
Dies at Age 95

Middleton was called "Dean of Presidential Library Directors"

AUSTIN, TX – Harry Middleton, former director of the LBJ Presidential Library, former speechwriter for President Lyndon B. Johnson, teacher, and author, died January 20, 2017, in Austin, Texas. He was 95 years old.

Harry Middleton's name has been virtually synonymous with the LBJ Presidential Library, and he was often referred to as the “Dean of Presidential Library Directors."

Universally regarded as the most distinguished director to have served in the presidential library system, he spent more than 30 years of unparalleled service as the LBJ Library's director, from 1970 to 2002. “Harry Middleton's leadership in shaping the Johnson Library established a standard emulated to this day – a standard based on archival excellence, public engagement, and celebration of service to one's country," said David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States.

During his tenure as director, and later as executive director of the LBJ Foundation, Middleton ensured that the library provided thousands of researchers and scholars unprecedented assistance and access to the forty-five million pages of historical documents of President Johnson and his close associates. Current director of the LBJ Presidential Library, Mark K. Updegrove, said, “Harry Middleton ensured that the rich archival resources at the LBJ Library are available to the public. He developed exhibits and educational conferences that advanced the LBJ Library as a center for intellectual activity and community leadership. I have been honored to work with him and to have called him my dear friend. We at the LBJ Library stand on Harry's shoulders."

“Harry Middleton had myriad accomplishments and talents. Without dispute, he was the best director of any presidential library ever," said Larry Temple, chairman, LBJ Foundation. “Moreover, he was a remarkably gifted writer. In addition to the widely admired prose bearing Harry's name, many of the most memorable LBJ pronouncements and statements were Harry's handiwork. Finally, and most importantly, Harry Middleton was the most captivating and companionable friend anyone could want to have."

Middleton met President Johnson in 1966 while writing a report for a presidential commission on the selective service and was later offered a job in the White House. From January 1967 until January 1969, he served as a staff assistant, writing speeches for the president and drafting messages to Congress delineating need for new legislation.

Following the Johnson presidency, Middleton returned to Texas with the former president to work with him at the Federal Building in Austin, Texas, and at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas, in the role of special assistant. From 1969 until May 1970, Middleton worked on two books with Johnson: The Choices We Face (published in March 1969), and The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969 (published in 1971).

To the Johnson family, Middleton was a friend and professional ally. “Harry Middleton was all about excellence," said Luci Baines Johnson, Lyndon Johnson's daughter. “As an enlisted man and officer, as a journalist and writer of presidential speeches and books, as a sartorial elegant raconteur, as a friend and family man - he was simply the best. Universally admired and loved, he remained a modest man with one exception. He adored reminding us all that a fellow journalist had once described him as the sexiest man in Austin."

President Johnson let it be known that he wanted Middleton to be director while they worked together on his memoir. At the time, the appointment was considered an unusual move because virtually all the library directors were professional archivists. Although Middleton had no credentials as an archivist, Johnson told him that he was a capable writer who could "do anything." In 1970, Middleton became the second director of the LBJ Library, following Chester Newland who served one year, primarily overseeing the transfer of records.

The LBJ Library opened on May 22, 1971, and Middleton was responsible for its direction for the next thirty-one years until his retirement. He also served as executive director of the LBJ Foundation from 1993 until 2004.

Following President Johnson's instructions that the LBJ Library should look forward instead of solely to the past, Middleton conceived and presided over many symposia focusing on current and prospective policy issues facing the country. Middleton was also an original proponent of a formal collaboration between the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the LBJ Library, a partnership that today continues to promote the development of innovative research and public education initiatives.

One of Middleton's favorite stories about Johnson was sparked by his hesitation to open certain papers on education prior to a symposium. Middleton was concerned that some of the papers could cause embarrassment. Johnson disagreed and told Middleton, “Harry, good men have been trying to protect my reputation for forty years and not a damned one has succeeded. What makes you think you can?"

With that presidential mandate for transparency in mind, Middleton kept the promise of President Johnson who declared during the 1971 LBJ Library dedication ceremonies: “It is all here: the story of our time - - with the bark off."

In 1971, at Johnson's request, Middleton worked with former National Security Advisor Walt Rostow to prepare a rationale that Johnson could present to President Nixon that would persuade him to expedite declassification of foreign policy documents of Johnson's administration, including documents concerning the Vietnam War. Johnson died before he was able to meet with Nixon. However, under Middleton's direction, the Library established a reputation of leadership in declassification and openness, declassifying and opening hundreds of thousands of pages of historical material.

Middleton was described in the August 2000 edition of Texas Monthly as “The Man Who Saved LBJ," for his decision, with Mrs. Johnson's approval, to release President Johnson's taped telephone conversations. Although Johnson had stipulated that the recordings be sealed until 50 years after his death (the year 2023), Middleton consulted with the president's widow, Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, about releasing them sooner. She told Middleton the ultimate decision was his, and she would support whatever action he took. The conversations, most of which were recorded on Dictaphone machines, cover a variety of issues, including foreign policy, civil rights, the Vietnam War and peace negotiations, pending legislation in Congress, the economy, politics, labor issues, appointments, and press relations. Since the initial public release of the tapes in 1993, historians have reassessed the Johnson presidency.

Lynda Johnson Robb, President Johnson's daughter, valued Middleton's leadership and wisdom. “Harry was thoughtful and had a wonderful shoulder to lean on. We all thought he loved us best. I always relied on his wise counsel, in my personal life and for the benefit of the LBJ Library."

In praising Middleton's direction at the library, former President Gerald Ford said, “No one in the history of the presidential library system has entertained larger aspirations, or executed them with such style." Historian Michael Beschloss called Middleton “the Joe DiMaggio of presidential library directors."

When announcing his retirement as library director in 2001, Middleton said, “My 30-year run as leader of this great institution has been an adventure without equal, an encounter with history past and present that has filled the experience with excitement and purpose."

Tom Johnson, chairman emeritus of the LBJ Foundation, worked with Middleton and shared his adventures. “Harry Middleton became the very trusted confidant and adviser to both Lady Bird Johnson and former President Johnson," said Johnson. “Talented writer, charismatic, and renown by his inability to drive a car, Harry was beloved by those of us who shared his lifelong adventures. And, God, he was fun."

In addition to assisting President Johnson prepare his memoir, Middleton has published several of his own works, including Pax (1958), The Compact History of the Korean War (1962), LBJ: The White House Years (1990), and Lady Bird Johnson: A Life Well-Lived (1992).

Middleton received the Presidential Rank of Meritorious Executive in 1991, the Anti-Defamation League's Torch of Liberty Award in 1992, and The University of Texas Presidential Citation in 2001.

In 1994, Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson established the Harry Middleton Lectureship to make renowned speakers available free of charge to the public and students at The University of Texas at Austin. Past Middleton Lectureship speakers include former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former U. S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, journalists Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw and Bill Moyers, physicist Dr. Steven Weinberg, actors Bryan Cranston, Michael York and Kirk Douglas, and novelist Jodi Picoult.

Not only were students at The University of Texas at Austin given access to fascinating speakers through the lectureship in his name, Middleton believed in using history to shape the future. Upper-class students in the Liberal Arts and Humanities program at The University of Texas at Austin rushed to sign up for Middleton's spring semester class, “The Johnson Years," which was held at the Library from 2004-2013. The class was an intimate, close-up look at the Johnson presidency. Highlights of the course were hearing from those closest to the Johnsons, including Luci Baines Johnson, Lynda Johnson Robb, Larry Temple, Bess Abell, General Jim Cross, and Ben Barnes, to name a few. Students visited the LBJ Ranch and wrote a paper based on research in the LBJ Library's holdings. Ben Mendelson was a student who benefitted from the class, “…the beauty of Harry Middleton's class is that it is taught not only by him but by the various guest speakers that he brings in – people who didn't learn about LBJ from books but by people who knew LBJ, were in the White House in the 1960s, were working for LBJ, and knew the material because they lived it." Joining Middleton for his last class was fellow speechwriter Bob Hardesty, and the two men regaled the students with their program “LBJ with the Bark Off." C-SPAN recorded this last class and aired the program in April 2013. Hardesty passed away in July 2013.

In 2004, the LBJ Foundation established the Harry Middleton Fellowships to support scholarly work in presidential studies and to recognize Middleton's contributions to the presidential library system. Each year, the LBJ Foundation awards $10,000 – $12,000 to support scholars researching presidential policy.

Middleton was born in Centerville, Iowa, on October 24, 1921. Following two years of study at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, from 1941-1943, he enlisted in the U. S. Army during World War II, serving from 1943-1946, beginning as a private and leaving the service as a sergeant. Later, Middleton served as an officer in the Korean War from 1951-1953, retiring as a captain. He completed his education at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, earning a degree in journalism. In 1986, LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication inducted him into the School Hall of Fame for distinguished alumni.

During his career as a professional writer, Middleton worked as a reporter for the Associated Press and news editor for Architectural Forum and published stories in Reader's Digest, Sports Illustrated, Collier's, Cosmopolitan, and Life.

Middleton is survived by four children, Susan Hoyle of Washington, D. C.; Deborah Sansom and James Middleton of Austin, Texas; and Jennifer O'Dell of Buda, Texas; and four grandchildren – Joshua Hoyle, Monica O'Dell Shields, Lindsay O'Dell, and Reed O'Dell. Middleton's wife, Miriam, died in 2004.

The family suggests memorial contributions be made to the Harry Middleton Fellowships in Presidential Studies which awards grants to scholars researching Presidential policy. The Fellowships are managed by the LBJ Foundation, 2313 Red River Street, Austin, Texas, 78705.

Memorial Service
A memorial service honoring Harry Middleton was held on Wednesday, Feb. 1 in the LBJ Auditorium. A reception followed in the Great Hall of the library. View: Photos | Video

Photos & Video

Harry Middleton, Lady Bird Johnson, and President Johnson outside the LBJ Library during its construction. LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe. March 15, 1971. [Download Photo]

Harry Middleton and President Johnson at the LBJ Library. LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe, B4080-33. March 15, 1971. [Download photo]


Harry Middleton and President Johnson at the White House. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto. October 15, 1968. [Download Photo]

NBC's Brian Williams and Harry Middleton. LBJ Library photo by Charles Bogel, D11660-31. June 7, 2000. [Download photo]

Austin, Texas. Portrait of Lyndon B. Johnson Library Director Harry Middleton. LBJ Library photo by Frank Wolfe, B4119-30. April 12, 1971. [Download Photo]

Cabinet Room, White House, Description: Harry Middleton (seated, center). LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto. Oct. 3, 1968. [Download Photo]

Swimming Pool, White House. Description L-R: Harry Middleton, Tom Johnson, Bob Hardesty, and Sec. Wilbur Cohen. LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto. September 26, 1968. [Download photo]

Lady Bird Johnson and Harry Middleton at the LBJ Ranch. LBJ Library photo by Charles Bogel. Aug. 9, 2003. [Download photo]

Harry Middleton at the LBJ Library. Photo by Frank Wolfe. Dec. 15, 1987. [Download photo]

Harry Middleton at the LBJ Library. Nov. 24, 2015. LBJ Library photo by Jay Godwin. [Download]

One of Harry Middleton’s favorite stories about LBJ was sparked by his hesitation to open certain papers on education prior to a symposium. Middleton was concerned that some of the papers could cause embarrassment. Johnson disagreed and gave Middleton clear instructions:

Memorial Service

A memorial service honoring Harry Middleton was held on Wednesday, Feb. 1 in the LBJ Auditorium. A reception followed in the Great Hall of the library. View: Photos | Video

Memorial Service

Memorial Service

Memorial Service