ELIZABETH CHRISTIAN & ASSOCIATES
Lady Bird Johnson
1912 - 2007
Wife, mother, grandmother, conservationist, businesswoman, philanthropist, First Lady.
Lady Bird Johnson holds claim to all of those titles and more.
All her life, Mrs. Johnson has brought beauty to her sprawling family, to the Texas Hill Country she loves, and to the nation that loves her.
She inspired the passage of the Beautification Act of 1965–a bill her husband called a “gift” to his wife–which cemented environmentalism as a top priority in the United States. 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 as he rose from Congressman to Senator to Vice President to President and as mother to daughters Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. After her husband’s death, she spent the next three and a half decades solidifying all that she had laid in place during their marriage.
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.
Mrs. Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor in the East Texas town of Karnack on December 22, 1912. Her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, was owner of a general store. Her mother, Minnie Pattillo Taylor, died when Claudia was five 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 would later 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 it left those around them breathless, too.
Mrs. Johnson was independently a successful businesswoman. In 1943, Mrs. Johnson 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 eighties.
Lady Bird Johnson is probably best 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 for his race for the Congress, Senate, vice presidency and presidency. In 1960, 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 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 was also 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, Mrs. Johnson authored A White House Diary, a memoir that drew on her considerable skills as a writer and historian. “I was keenly aware that I had a unique opportunity, a front row seat, on an unfolding story and nobody else was going to see it from quite the vantage point that I saw it.” She also co-authored Wildflowers Across America with Carlton Lees.
In December 1972, President and Mrs. Johnson gave the LBJ Ranch house and surrounding property to the people of the United States 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.
Our Environmental First Lady
The Legacy of Lady Bird Johnson
Austin TX–As a child, Lady Bird Johnson paddled in the dark bayous of Caddo Lake in East Texas, under ancient cypress trees decorated with Spanish moss. The sense of place that came from being close to the land never left her. She would devote much of her life to preserving it.
As she was growing up, earning her degrees from The University of Texas at Austin and tending to the many duties as wife of a rising political star, Mrs. Johnson often noted the impact that natural beauty had on her life. But she was First Lady of the nation before she was able to translate her love for the land into national policy. Once started, she amassed a lifetime of achievement as the Environmental First Lady.
Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall credits several trips to the American West, the Rocky Mountains and Utah with igniting Mrs. Johnson’s interest in conservation. In 1964, when she visited Indian reservations and dedicated the Flaming Gorge Dam in Utah, she told audiences that natural beauty, was their greatest resource and must be protected.
Right after the 1964 election, she decided that “the whole field of conservation and beautification” had the greatest appeal to her. Soon after that, she was urging her husband to see what could be done about junkyards along the nation’s highways.
Today, perhaps most people think of Lady Bird Johnson as the reason why we see wildflowers blooming along the nation’s highways and fewer junkyards and billboards. The Beautification Act of 1965 was one tangible result of Mrs. Johnson’s campaign for national beautification. Known as “Lady Bird’s Bill” because of her active support, the legislation called for control of outdoor advertising, including removal of certain types of signs along the nation's Interstate system and the existing federal-aid primary system. It also required certain junkyards along Interstate or primary highways to be removed or screened and encouraged scenic enhancement and roadside development.
It is part of that legacy that today the Surface Transportation and Uniform Relocation Assistance Act of 1987 requires that at least 0.25 of 1 percent of funds expended for landscaping projects in the highway system be used to plant native flowers, plants and trees.
The term beautification concerned Mrs. Johnson, who feared it was “cosmetic” and “trivial.” She emphasized that it meant much more—“clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas.” Meg Greenwood, writing in the Reporter, noted the “deceptively sweet and simple-sounding name of ‘beautification’.”
Mrs. Johnson made it her mission to call attention to the natural beauty of the nation, and one of her most important efforts was in Washington, D.C., which was much in need of a facelift.
In 1964 Mrs. Johnson formed the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, responding to Mary Lasker’s suggestion that she make Washington, D.C., a “garden city” and a model for the rest of the nation. Soon afterward Mrs. Lasker, a philanthropist who lobbied for medical research as well as for natural beauty and Mrs. Johnson founded the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital, which received private donations for the project. The first planting took place on the mall where Mrs. Johnson planted pansies. She then planted azaleas and dogwood in the Triangle at Third and Independence Avenue and ended her first planting effort at a public housing project.
Mrs. Johnson enlisted a stellar team to attack the issue, including Nash Castro, White House liaison for the National Park Service, philanthropist Laurance S. Rockefeller, Kathleen Louchheim, an Assistant Secretary of State and leader among Democratic women, and many others.
Mrs. Johnson’s view of this project went far beyond planting daffodil bulbs. She was concerned with pollution, urban decay, recreation, mental health, public transportation and the crime rate. The Committee agreed to plant flowers in triangle parks all over the city, to give awards for neighborhood beautification, and to press for the revitalization of Pennsylvania Avenue and the preservation of Lafayette Park. The Committee also generated enormous donations of cash and azaleas, cherry trees, daffodils, dogwood and other plants in evidence today in Washington’s lovely parks and green spaces. Perhaps most importantly, Mrs. Johnson’s effort prompted businesses and others to begin beautification efforts in low-income neighborhoods hidden from the much-visited tourist attractions.
One of her key efforts was an effort to clean up trash and control rats in the Shaw section of Washington. That developed into Project Pride, which enlisted Howard University students and high school students to clean up neighborhoods. Mrs. Johnson funded the project with a $7,000 grant from the Society for a More Beautiful Capital.
Later, Mrs. Johnson was a key player in the White House Conference on Natural Beauty that convened in May 1966, and was coordinated by Laurance S. Rockefeller. She opened the conference with a question: “Can a great democratic society generate the drive to plan, and having planned, execute projects of great natural beauty?” The conference sparked similar local conferences and added momentum to the national conservation movement.
One result was the President’s Council on Recreation and Natural Beauty, chaired by Vice President Hubert Humphrey, another vehicle for spreading the conservation message and encouraging such local efforts as anti-litter campaigns.
President Johnson also issued a proclamation declaring 1967 a “Youth Natural Beauty and Conservation Year.” The Johnsons opened the year with a press conference honoring youth leaders at the LBJ Ranch.
One method Mrs. Johnson employed in her beautification campaign was to call attention to important sites by visiting those places with the media in tow. She visited historic sites, national parks, and scenic areas, usually accompanied by Nash Castro of the National Park Service, a number of dignitaries and the media. Her nine beautification trips included Virginia historic places, the Hudson River in New York, Big Bend National Park and the California Redwoods, among others.
Mrs. Johnson’s views, expressed in letters and conversations, had influence in preventing the construction of dams in the Grand Canyon and in creating Redwoods National Park.
That the Johnson Administration was the most active in conservation since the time of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt is largely due to Mrs. Johnson. Among the major legislative initiatives were the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program and many additions to the National Park system, a total of 200 laws relevant to the environment.
The President thanked his wife for her dedication on July 26, 1968, after signing the Department of the Interior Appropriations Bill. He presented her with 50 pens used to sign some 50 laws relating to conservation and beautification and a plaque that read: “To Lady Bird, who has inspired me and millions of Americans to try to preserve our land and beautify our nation. With love from Lyndon.”
Just before President Johnson left office, Columbia Island in the Potomac River was renamed Lady Bird Johnson Park. Starting in 1969, she served on the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings and Monuments.
After leaving Washington, Mrs. Johnson focused her effort on Texas. She was the leading force behind Austin’s beautiful hike and bike trail that winds more than 10 miles around the Town Lake portion of the Colorado River, graced with blooming native trees and plants. “She’ll say she got on a moving train, but she had the leadership to say it could be a jewel,” said Carolyn Curtis, a close family friend. “Now it is the meeting point of all of Austin…It brought in the Hyatt and the Four Seasons. She was the one with that vision.”
For 20 years, starting in 1969, she encouraged the beautification of Texas highways by personally giving awards to the highway districts that used native Texas plants and scenery to the best advantage. Her focus was on the ecological advantages as well as the beauty of native plants—a passion that would lead her to create the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982 on the occasion of her 70th birthday.
Mrs. Johnson enlisted her friend, actress Helen Hayes, and made a personal contribution of $125,000 and 60 acres east of Austin to start the center, which grew into an organization of more than 13,000 members. The Center soon became a national leader in research, education and projects that encouraged the use of wildflowers.
Several years later, Mrs. Johnson foresaw the need for a larger site and located a lovely 43-acre piece of land in the Hill Country of Southwest Austin on which to erect a permanent building. The new Center opened in 1995. In 1998, it was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Now, with 279 acres, more than 700 plant species on display, and a fully developed education program for children and adults, the Wildflower Center’s influence is strong across the nation.
With its mission of increasing the sustainable use and conservation of native wildflowers, plants and landscapes, the Center works to teach everyone how these plants conserve water, minimize the use of fertilizers and insecticides that pollute the atmosphere and convey a unique sense of place.
“It is not just one organization, one location,” said Mrs. Johnson’s daughter, Luci Baines Johnson. “It is a philosophy that will endure long after my mother is not here, and I think there is no legacy she would more treasure than to have helped people recognize the value in preserving and promoting our native land.”
In an article in the Organization of American Historians’ Magazine of History, Historian Rita G. Koman said, “Lady Bird Johnson’s legacy was to legitimize environmental issues as a national priority. The attitudes and policies she advanced have shaped the conservation and preservation policies of the environmental movement since then,” Koman continued.
Lewis L. Gould, University of Texas professor and author of Lady Bird Johnson and the Environmental Movement, wrote in his preface: “If a man in the 1960s had been involved with an environmental movement such as highway beautification, had changed the appearance of a major American city, had addressed the problems of black inner-city youth and had campaigned tirelessly to enhance national concern about natural beauty, no doubts would be raised that he was worthy of biographical and scholarly scrutiny. Lady Bird Johnson’s accomplishments as a catalyst for environmental ideas during the 1960s and thereafter entitle her to an evaluation of what she tried to do and what she achieved.”
AWARDS AND HONORS PRESENTED TO LADY BIRD JOHNSON:
Of particular note:
- From 1971-1977, served on The University of Texas System Board of Regents.
- Member of the International Conference Steering Committee (1981-82) and The University of Texas Centennial Commission.
- Trustee of the National Geographic Society.
- Member of the National Committee for the Bicentennial Era.
- Named to the Advisory Council to the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration by President Ford. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Mrs. Johnson to the President's Commission on White House Fellowships.
Other awards include:
- Togetherness Award, Marge Champion, 1958
- Humanitarian Award, B'nai B'rith, 1961
- Businesswoman's Award, Business and Professional Women's Club, 1961
- Theta Sigma Phi Citation, 1962
- Distinguished Achievement Award, Washington Heart Association, 1962
- Industry Citation, American Women in Radio & Television, 1963
- Humanitarian Citation, Volunteers of America, 1963
- Distinguished Alumnus Award, The University of Texas Ex-Students’ Association, 1964
- George Foster Peabody Award for the television program, "A Visit to Washington with
- Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson on Behalf of a More Beautiful America," 1966
- Eleanor Roosevelt Golden Candlestick Award, Women's National Press Club, 1968
- Damon Woods Memorial Award, The Industrial Designers' Society of America, 1972
- Conservation Service Award, Department of the Interior, 1974
- American Legion Distinguished Award, 1975
- Ladies Home Journal "Woman of the Year" Award for Quality of Life, 1975
- Abraham Lincoln Award, Southern Baptist Convention, 1976
- Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Gerald Ford, 1977
- Texas Women's Hall of Fame, 1984
- National Achievement Award, American Horticultural Society, 1984
- Wildflowers Across America Award of the Year, Garden Writers Association, 1984
- Texan of the Year Award, State of Texas, 1985
- Lord & Taylor Rose Award, 1987
- Congressional Gold Medal, 1988
- Gold Seal Award for Distinguished Service and Achievement,
- National Council of State Garden Clubs, 1990
- Lone Star Lifestyle Visionary Award, J.C. Penney Company, 1990
- Tom Dodd, Jr. Award of Excellence, 1990
- Star in Our Crown, Victoria Magazine, 1993
- Charles Leonard Weddle Memorial Award, Native Plant Society, 1994
- Lifetime Achievement Award, Nature Conservancy of Texas, 1994
- Texas Federation of Women's Clubs Award, 1994
- Motorola Earth Day Award, 1995
- Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement, 1995
- National Building Museum Honor Award, 1995
- Chairman's Award, National Geographic Society, 1995
- Conservation Achievement Award, Southwest Regional Office of the
- National Park Service, 1995
- Laurance Spelman Rockefeller Conservation Award for Distinguished Service, 1996
- Caritas of Austin's Harvey Penick Award, 1996
- Environmental Law Institute Award, 1996
- Star of Texas Preservation Award, Gillespie County Historical Society, 1996
- The Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT)
- International Award of Excellence, 1997
- The Heritage Society of Austin Sue and Frank McBee Visionary Award, 1997
- The 39th Annual Freeman Award, 1998
- The Edith Wharton Achievement Award for Landscape Preservation, 1998
- Denver Botanic Gardens Medal for Eminent Contributions and Leadership, 1998
- Lifetime Achievement Award, Native Plant Conservation Initiative, 1999
- The Texas Audubon Society Centennial Award for Conservation, 1999
- Cornerstone Award, Texas Society of Architects, 2000
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park Medal of Honor, National Park Foundation, 2000
- The Daughters of the American Revolution Medal of Honor, 2003
- Texas Intercollegiate Press Association Hall of Fame Award, 2004
- Edwin P. Hubble Award, Edwin P. Hubble Society, 2004
- History Making Texan Award, The Texas State History Museum Foundation, 2005
- National Conservation Achievement Award for Conservationist of the Year,
- National Wildlife Federation, 2005
- Lindy Boggs Award, Stennis Center for Public Service, 2005
- Cornelius Amory Pugsley Medal, Academy of Park and Recreation Administration and
- The National Park Foundation, 2005
- The University of Texas, Austin, Texas, Doctor of Letters, 1964
- Texas Woman's University, Denton, Texas, Doctor of Law, 1964
- Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, Doctor of Letters, 1967
- Williams College, Massachusetts, Doctor of Humane Letters, 1967
- Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas, Doctor of Humanities, 1967
- The University of Alabama, Doctor of Humane Letters,1975
- Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University), San Marcos, Texas,
- Doctor of Humane Letters, 1983
- Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland, Doctor of Humane Letters, 1983
- Weizmann Institute of Science, Honorary Fellow, 1985
- George Washington University, Doctor of Public Service, 1986
- Johns Hopkins University, Doctor of Humane Letters, 1990
- State University of New York, Doctor of Humane Letters, 1990
- Southern Methodist University, Doctor of Humane Letters, 1996
- St. Edward’s University, Doctor of Humane Letters, 1998
- Boston University, Doctor of Humane Letters, 1998