“I am convinced that slavery will be abolished by gentle means or by force, because I believe that institutions founded on injustice cannot survive. ”
Claudia Alva Taylor "Lady Bird" Johnson
First Lady and Environmentalist Extraordinaire, 1912-2007
Lady Bird Johnson was born in Karnack, Texas, in an imposing 70- year-old mansion built by slaves. Her mother died from a fall when Lady Bird was five. Her father allowed the child to roam the manor at will, and she spent many hours in peaceful solitude with nature.
An excellent student, Lady Bird graduated from high school at age 15 and entered The University of Texas at Austin. She wrote for The Daily Texan, earned a history degree in 1933, then stayed another year to complete a degree in journalism. She anticipated a career in this field when she met Lyndon Baines Johnson, a Congressional aide visiting Austin in summer 1934. He wooed her with dogged persistence. Just 10 weeks after they met, the couple married in San Antonio.
By 1937 Johnson was ready to run for Congress. Lady Bird funded his campaign with $10,000 inherited from her mother. During World War II, Congressman Johnson enlisted in the navy. Lady Bird ran his office in his absence, discovering strong managerial skills in the process. On his return she used more of her inheritance to purchase an ailing Austin radio station that soon saw financial success.
When Lyndon ran for senator in 1948, Lady Bird overcame her initial shyness and stumped for her husband’s campaign. Over the next 12 years, Johnson rose to the powerful position of Senate majority leader. He garnered the Democratic nomination for vice president in 1960. Lady Bird campaigned graciously and articulately for the Kennedy-Johnson ticket, prompting Bobby Kennedy to affirm, “Lady Bird carried Texas for us.”
The fatal Dallas shootings of November 1963 catapulted her into the role of First Lady, “suddenly onstage for a part I never rehearsed.” Accepting the challenge, Lady Bird became an active presidential wife. She chaired the Head Start program for preschoolers and mobilized volunteers into planting a carpet of flowers across Washington, D.C. Appalled at the billboards and junkyards that cluttered the nation’s highways, she spearheaded the Highway Beautification Act of 1965.
Divisiveness in the country over the war in Vietnam took a toll on Lyndon’s health. Lady Bird was relieved when he announced he would not run for re-election in 1968. The Johnsons retired to their ranch near Stonewall, Texas. Lyndon died in 1973, but Lady Bird continued her efforts to infuse culture and natural beauty into everyday life. She was instrumental in establishing the LBJ Library, served on The University of Texas Board of Regents, led Austin’s Town Lake Beautification Project, and founded the national wildflower research center that eventually bore her name. For her contributions to public life, The University of Texas at Austin named Lady Bird Johnson a Distinguished Alumna.
I would play outdoors; I would explore. I was utterly free to walk across hill and dale. I loved the world around me, and I loved to see the seasons change and see the first violets by the small tributary of a creek.—Lady Bird describing her childhood in East Texas
There were huge, magnificent, big old Southern magnolia trees and tons and tons of jonquils—yellow ones and white ones. Every spring the yard would come ablaze with them. I would watch for the first ones and have myself a little ceremony, crowning the Prince of Spring.
Ugliness is so grim. A little beauty can help create harmony which will lessen tensions.
As I think back about my life, the things that surface are those which have given me pleasure and moments of quiet delight.
You can’t espouse something that doesn’t make you happy. It has to make your heart sing before it can make anybody else’s sing.