The Lady Bird We Knew …

by | Feb 1, 2012 | People

Lady Bird Johnson at Padre Island National Seashore. Photo by Robert Knudsen, courtesy of the LBJ Library

Lady Bird Johnson at Padre Island National Seashore. PHOTO Robert Knudsen/LBJ Library


SHE WAS A SHY, SMALL-TOWN GIRL from the wooded bayous of East Texas who developed into a leading advocate for nature and for the disadvantaged of her time. She became known as the wife of the 36th president, the CEO of a Texas broadcasting empire, a canny investor and an environmentalist. But those who met her were often struck most by her lack of airs and her interest in their lives.

The Texas Legislature has declared 2012 Lady Bird Johnson Centennial Year in honor of the 100th anniversary of Mrs. Johnson’s birth. As the nation celebrates this woman who walked the crowded corridors of power with uncommon grace and courage, we have asked some of those many people who knew her for their favorite Lady Bird stories. Learn more about Mrs. Johnson here.

“Her undying legacies”

“Lady Bird (or Claudia, as she preferred to be known) Johnson will always be Texas’ godmother. The Wildflower Center and the beautification of Texas highways are her undying legacies.”
– Bill Hobby, former Lt. Governor of Texas

“Her first-class brain”

“I interviewed Mrs. Johnson at the ranch in September 1984 for my book on her environmental work. I mentioned that Richard Nixon was then being credited for his environmental accomplishments and the record of Lyndon Johnson and herself was being somewhat overshadowed. She paused and then launched into the most lucid explanation of what the Johnsons had tried to accomplish with legislation such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund. She revealed a mastery of legislative detail and congressional pressures that was stunning. After a few moments, she caught herself and changed the subject. But it was exciting to see her first-class brain at work and I knew why she had enjoyed the influence in Washington that she had wielded during the 1960s and afterward.”
– Lewis L. Gould, leading historian of twentieth century first ladies, UT professor emeritus in American history

“Mrs. Johnson set out to make me completely comfortable”

“One of the things that sticks out the most was after my husband, George, had been asked by President Johnson to work on the National Security Council (He later became Johnson’s press secretary). We arrived in Washington in July of 1966. I was not at all happy to be moving because I was enjoying practicing law, and had a shot at going with a firm at the time, 5 children, two of whom were approaching middle school, and three boys, 6,4 and barely 2. I was not a happy camper.

I suspect that George had indicated this to the President in some fashion. We were flown up in Air Force One, and when we arrived, the children went to Pennsylvania to stay with George’s sister and her family, while we waited for the furniture and moved into the rent house in Arlington. George and I stayed at the White House, and Mrs. Johnson set out to make me completely comfortable, and she certainly did.

During the time we were there, I was included in numerous events and frequently we were included on the Sunday afternoon outings on the Sequoia (the Presidential yacht).

These were very personal outings with a few friends that the Johnsons could be comfortable around.”
– Jo Anne Christian, Austin, Texas

“I loved her very, very much”

“To the end, Mrs. Johnson was a little surprised and in awe at her life. She said ‘It wouldn’t have happened without Lyndon,’ and she was always grateful to him. She was a genteel lady but strong and capable, very disciplined. When you were with her, you just wanted to be a better person, a smarter person. I loved her very, very much.”
– Shirley James, formerly Mrs. Johnson’s executive assistant

“Mud everywhere”

“There was mud everywhere, and here comes Lady Bird, all dressed up – a hat, a scarf and dress, the whole nine yards – walking across boards that covered the mud, carrying a cake for us. Trailing behind her were three Secret Service agents. She insisted that all the staff come to the center’s break room and have a piece of cake, and asked individually how everyone was doing. She had a big part of her heart in this place, and cared about the staff.”
– Flo Oxley, conservation director, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

A visit with Camp Fire Girls

“…As you spoke to our group, you encouraged us, inspired us, and made a lasting impression on my life. Later, what a thrill it was to see your Inaugural gown displayed in our Harrison County Museum, knowing that you always remembered your East Texas heritage. Our world is a more beautiful, more colorful, more vibrant place because of your dedication to scattering seeds of kindness, along with seeds of spectacular wildflowers. God Bless you!”
– Linda Snyder Ringler of Temple, Texas

A visit to the LBJ National Historical Park

“Unfortunately I met Mrs. Johnson late in her life [after her stroke]… One of my fondest memories was sitting with her, Luci, and Ian in the living room of the Texas White House. We were discussing plans for the LBJ Ranch: providing greater access and use of the park, restoration plans for the ranch house, and a variety of special events and fun times. When Luci asked her Mom what she thought of our conversation Mrs. Johnson shared a big smile and clapped her hands in approval. The memory still brings tears to my eyes.”
– Russ Whitlock, superintendent, Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park

“She will always be an inspiration”

“Lady Bird Johnson has inspired me since I was a child growing up in Ohio. Early in my life I learned about her because we shared a birthday and I will be thinking of her as I have for many years on December 22. She will always be an inspiration to me, and I never would have guessed that I would find myself living in Texas and working at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.”
– Lynda Brick, receptionist, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

“A smile on her face”

“…She always came with a smile on her face and the public was so excited to see her each year. They’d shake her hand and take pictures. They just loved seeing her. Mrs. Johnson was always so kind and willing to spend time with the public. She always made the spirit of the season in the Texas Hill Country special and was a true patriot of the state park.”
– Iris Neffendorf, superintendent, Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site

Her leadership style

“She had a firm interest in all aspects of the Center, but she wasn’t overbearing. I remember Mrs. Johnson sitting quietly in meetings she attended. She’d wait until the end of the discussion, raise her hand and say, ‘Have you all thought about this?’ bringing up some added factor worth noting.”
– Joe Hammer, director of product marketing, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Breakdown at LBJ State Park

“… When we reached the Danz Cabins, the golf cart would no longer function and it was discovered the batteries were dead. After a few stressful moments, Mrs. Johnson said, ‘Well, I guess you gentlemen will have to push this cart to Ranch Road 1.’ Of course, the Secret Service agents were dressed in their black suits, white shirt, and tie. It must have been quite a sight to see us pushing the golf cart down the path, especially with the two gentlemen dressed in black suits sweating profusely and walking through the tall wildflowers. As we approached Ranch Road 1, she looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Thanks for the push.'”
– Donnie Schuch, former park manager, Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site

“She liked to sneak in”

“She liked to sneak in, because she didn’t like the fanfare, and visit with the wildflowers, because those were her friends.”
– Flo Oxley, conservation director, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center