Portrait of a Lady

by | Aug 1, 2007 | People

Wife, mother, grandmother, conservationist, businesswoman, philanthropist, first lady. Lady Bird Johnson held claim to all of those titles and more.

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

At Mrs. Johnson’s funeral, Lucinda Robb said of her grandmother, “She was the most competent and least needy person I’ve ever known. The only thing she really needed was a little more rain or a little less rain in the Texas Hill Country.”

This competence is seen in a life marked by achievement. Lady Bird Johnson inspired the passage of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 – a bill her husband called a “gift” to his wife – which helped establish environmentalism as a national priority. 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 and as mother to daughters Lynda Bird and Luci Baines.

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.

The first lady was born Claudia Alta Taylor in the East Texas town of Karnack on December 22, 1912. Her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, owned a general store. Her mother, Minnie Pattillo Taylor, died when Claudia was 5 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 later would 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 that it left those around them breathless too.

On her own, Lady Bird Johnson was a successful businesswoman. In 1943, she 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 80s.

Lady Bird Johnson is well-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 in his runs for the House of Representatives, Senate, vice presidency and presidency. In 1960, she 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 F. 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 also was 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, she authored “A White House Diary,” a memoir that drew on her considerable skills as a writer and historian. Lady Bird Johnson also co-authored “Wildflowers Across America” with Carlton Lees.

In 1972, the family gave the LBJ Ranch house and surrounding property to the American people 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.