About Lady Bird Johnson
Devoted wife of the 36th President, CEO of a broadcasting empire, loving mother, canny investor, environmentalist and revered first lady, the woman who became known as Lady Bird Johnson walked the crowded corridors of power with grace and uncommon courage. Her warmth, graciousness 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 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 her solace came from her connection to nature, and that her life’s work sprang from a hope that future generations could experience nature’s beauty as she had.
That connection began when Claudia Alta Taylor was a child in northeast Texas. Born December 22, 1912, she was the youngest child of a busy merchant, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, and a cultured and somewhat unconventional mother, Minnie Patillo Taylor, who advocated for women’s voting rights and died when Claudia was only six. She paddled a canoe on the cypress-draped lanes of Caddo Lake near Karnack, Texas, and spent time alone in the woods or with friends.
As a child, a nursemaid called her “as purty as a lady bird,” and the nickname stuck. She attended a small rural elementary school and graduated from a local high school in 1928. After two years at a girl’s school in Dallas, Lady Bird’s thirst for knowledge drew her to Austin to enter the University of Texas in 1930. She earned a bachelor of arts degree there in 1933 and a journalism degree in 1934. She added the journalism degree convinced that newspaper people “went more places and met more interesting people and had more exciting things happen to them.”
Adventure came in the form of the lanky, outspoken Lyndon Baines Johnson, an aide to a Texas congressman. He was visiting Austin from Washington D.C. in August 1934, and an intense romance by phone and mail culminated in marriage on Nov. 17. The years that followed focused on his political career, with “Bird” as partner, confidante and helpmate. They started a family, with Lynda Bird born in 1944 and Luci Baines three years later. Lady Bird helped keep Lyndon’s Congressional office open during World War II when he volunteered for naval service. She stumped for Democratic candidates across 35,000 miles of campaign trail in the 1960 election. And she visited 33 foreign countries as a goodwill ambassador while he was vice president.
Mrs. Johnson also bought a failing low-power daytime-only Austin radio station in 1934 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. Her Austin broadcasting company grew to include an AM and FM radio station and a television station, all bearing the KTBC call letters before. The focus shifted to Austin radio stations by the 1990s, and Mrs. Johnson stayed actively involved in the LBJ Holding Company well into her 80s.
Among the causes Lady Bird championed after becoming First Lady in November 1963 was poverty. She served as honorary chairman of the national Head Start Program for pre-school children. First and foremost, though, Mrs. Johnson was an environmentalist. She enlisted friends to help plant thousands of tulips and daffodils that still delight visitors to our nation’s Capital, as well as campaigning nationally to promote nature areas and roadside beauty. The Highway Beautification Act of 1965, known as “Lady Bird’s Bill,” is one example of the efforts she supported in her quiet, determined way. Lyndon honored her stamp on the White House years in July 1968 by presenting her with pens from more than 50 pieces of environmental legislation he signed as president. And in 1999, when Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt presented her with the Native Plant Conservation Initiative Lifetime Achievement Award, he noted that “Mrs. Johnson has been a ‘shadow’ Secretary of the Interior’ for much of her life.”
Her legacy to us is wildflowers and wilderness. She lives on in Texas bluebonnets and native plants along the nation’s roadsides, urban parks and trails – and an unprecedented portfolio of legislation devoted to clean air, clean water and the conservation of our magnificent natural heritage. As Lady Bird Johnson noted in 1967, “The environment is where we all meet; where all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.”