Devoted wife of the 36th President, CEO of a broadcasting empire, loving mother, canny investor, environmentalist and revered first lady. Lady Bird Johnson was a shy girl from East Texas who grew up to walk the crowded corridors of power with a grace and charm that masked her intelligence. Her warmth and Southern courtesy helped her beloved husband, Lyndon Baines Johnson, negotiate a difficult path as president after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. When he ran for re-election in 1964, it was Mrs. Johnson who courageously tackled an angry South on a whistle-stop train tour, enduring hate and scorn from those who could not forgive him for signing the Civil Rights Act.
She would say later that her joy and solace came from connecting to nature. What became her life’s work sprang from the hope that future generations could experience nature’s beauty as she had. Since spring 2012, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center of The University of Texas at Austin and its national and state partners have marked the centennial of Mrs. Johnson’s birth with celebrations of her legacy.
Whether a postage stamp minted in her honor or a new traveling exhibit about her conservation impact, the intent is to remind us of Lady Bird Johnson’s imprint on the nation.
On Nov. 30, special guests that included Thurgood Marshall, Jr., and daughters Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb helped launch a US Postal Service stamp commemorating the woman known by many as the Environmental First Lady. Johnny Ray Watson sang “America The Beautiful” in a packed auditorium at the Wildflower Center during the ceremony for the stamp, which was issued alongside five others that Mrs. Johnson dedicated in the 1960s during her beautify America campaign.
“Generations of Johnson's are grateful to celebrate Mother's centennial with a “forever stamp” -- a stamp that will remind us forever of the difference she made on our environment and our commitment to serve those most in need,” her daughter Luci Baines Johnson said.
Marshall, who chairs the Postal Service Board of Governors, and many others championed creation of the stamp – only the sixth such stamp for a First Lady. Among those who wrote in support were all five living former first ladies, Houston Reps. Gene Green and Sheila Jackson Lee, Austin Reps. Michael McCaul and Lloyd Doggett, and Shirley James, the former executive assistant to Mrs. Johnson.
James spearheaded the letter-writing campaign for the stamp to honor the 36th First Lady. “Mrs. J deserves a stamp,” James said. “We associate her with ‘beautification’ and she made her mark on the American people with her great love for the environment.”
Mrs. Johnson’s previous accolades include being a 1988 recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and receiving the 1977 Medal of Freedom, which is the country’s highest civilian award. In addition, she has been recognized as the force behind the 1968 Highway Beautification Act, often referred to as “Lady Bird’s Bill.”
This year the National Archives in Washington, D.C. has been hosting an exhibit about Lady Bird Johnson and Pat Nixon, who also would have turned 100 this year. Back in Texas, Mrs. Johnson was inducted in October into the Texas Transportation Hall of Honor at a Wildflower Center ceremony for contributing to beautifying Texas’ and the nation’s highways. Recognizing the impact each person has on the environment, she had given monetary awards for 20 years to TxDOT staff who used native Texas plants along roadways.
Ellen Temple, who served on the award selection committee, said of Mrs. Johnson’s foresight in providing them, “When I see that the mowing is done at the right time for the seeds to set, or that an invasive grass that was choking out the flowers has been stopped, or that a 200-year-old oak tree has survived the clearing, I thank her for her vision for a more beautiful Texas. And I thank the supervisors in the highway department on the ground who made it happen… I can think of no better tribute to her memory than for Texas to dedicate the next 100 years to keeping our highways and byways, our most visible public land, beautiful."
Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy lives on in the millions of blooms planted in the nation’s capital, in the beautiful shores of Lady Bird Lake in Austin that she helped revitalize in the 1970s and in gardens at the Wildflower Center and elsewhere.
Damon Waitt, Wildflower Center senior director and botanist, used to escort her on field trips around the grounds, where school children would sometimes call Mrs. Johnson “Mother Nature.” “I was always amazed at the depth of her plant knowledge,” Waitt said. “Unlike many who see the plant world as just a green backdrop for their life, Mrs. Johnson was intimately familiar with the Texas flora and conversed with ease on topics ranging from ecology to plant taxonomy.”
To help more people understand her environmental contributions, the Wildflower Center developed an exhibit that will tour nationally highlighting Mrs. Johnson’s life. The conservation exhibit includes a new video narrated by Bill Moyers that the Center developed with help from the university. The exhibit was unveiled at the Wildflower Center’s Lady Bird Johnson Tribute Day in July and will travel in Texas and to the U.S. Botanic Garden in May 2013.
Meanwhile, the Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College in Valhalla, N.Y., celebrated the centennial by rededicating its Lady Bird Johnson Demonstration Garden this fall. And the Wildflower Center displayed its own Lady Bird-inspired art exhibits all year that were sponsored by the Mays Family Foundation.
A centennial highlight was the announcement that Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin donated $1 million to establish a Family Garden bearing their name. The 4.5 acre garden will foster hands-on creative play and learning by children among native plants. Additional donations are helping raise the possibility of breaking ground in 2013 on this garden — including $76,250 raised from a centennial auction of Johnson family items.
“Mother’s dream was that the Wildflower Center would inspire future generations to care for and take care of the environment,” Luci Baines Johnson said.
As Mrs. Johnson said in a 1968 speech to architects, “I know that the nature we are concerned with ultimately is human nature. That is the point of the beautification movement, and that finally is the point of architecture. Winston Churchill said, ‘First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.’ The same is true of our highways, our parks, our public buildings — the environment we create. They shape us."
-- By Barbra A. Rodriguez