A Word About Our Co-Founder

by | Jun 18, 2009 | People

Lady Bird Johnson and Helen Hayes

Helen Hayes (left) and Lady Bird Johnson. PHOTO LBJ Library


AFTER THE NATIONAL WILDFLOWER RESEARCH CENTER was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1997, it was easy for people to assume that Lady Bird was the only founder of the center. Not true.

In fact, Mrs. Johnson asked her friend, actress Helen Hayes’ to  partner with her in creating the National Wildlife Research Center on Mrs. Johnson’s seventieth birthday in 1982.

At that time, Helen Hayes, age 81, was one of the best-known actresses in the world.  Her career spanned more than 70 years, and she is one of only nine people to receive Emmy, Oscar, Grammy and Tony awards. She was known as the “First Lady of American Theatre.”

Hayes was honored and pleased to accept her friend’s suggestion.  “She was 70 and I was 81. I thought, why not? Let’s go for it! That association has been one of the happiest, most joyful experiences of my life,” Hayes said in the 1992 PBS-TV special “Wildflowers with Helen Hayes.”

Since Hayes was a little girl, she noted, she had a passion for wildflowers and cherished the nature around her. Helen would look out the window of the train rides at the great fields of wonder and color. They had a fairy-tale side for her, and she “caught the bug” right then and there.

In the foreword for the book The Wildflower, by Bette Castro, Hayes wrote, “Ever since I was very young, I liked to creep off to a field near my grandmother’s farm in Maryland, find a patch of wildflowers– red clover or field daises or such– curl up in it, and dream beautiful dreams.”  In fact, Hayes sketched the trillium on our home page for Bette Castro’s husband, Nash, first President of the Wildflower Center board.

As co-founder of the Center, Helen Hayes attended countless fundraisers, benefits, dinners, banquets and events in the effort to raise awareness and contributions for Center causes.

In the Winter 1985 National Wildflower Research Center newsletter,  Hayes wrote, “I joined Lady Bird Johnson… in the establishment of the much needed organization, based on my personal understanding and love for what we have been generously given by nature’s beauty…I am proud to be a part of this effort.”

The long-time friendship between Helen Hayes and Lady Bird Johnson was heartfelt and sincere. At a fundraiser to raise money for the LBJ Library and to honor Lady Bird Johnson, Hayes read love letters between former President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird.

Hayes started her acting career at the age of 5, and it didn’t end til she was 85 years old. Her mother, Essie, was an aspiring actress but her lack of success urged her to push Helen towards a career that would make her famous. While Helen was growing up she acted in several theatre plays but she wasn’t considered a serious adult actress until she was 17. Her first movie, “The Sin of Madelon Claudet,” earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Hayes married Charlie MacArthur, a Chicago journalist and playwright, and they were married until his death in 1956. She had two children, Mary and James.

In 1949, Helen’s daughter died of polio, and Hayes found comfort by founding the Mary MacArthur Fund to raise awareness.  Jonas Salk credited her with helping him establish funding for a successful polio vaccine. She eventually retired from theatre in 1971 but continued her acting career in film and television.  She died on March 17, 1993.

“Helen Hayes gave so generously of her talents and in the giving, brought joy into countless lives. I’m deeply grateful to have shared her life,” Mrs. Johnson wrote in the Center newsletter. “I will especially feel her spirit in the wildflower fields she loved and the legacy of native plants she championed through the work of the National Wildflower Research Center, which she co-founded with me. She will remain a national treasure in our hearts.”