Lady Bird Johnson dies at home
|Photo gallery: Lady Bird Johnson|
By Art Chapman
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
By Art Chapman
FORT WORTH, Texas — Lady Bird Johnson, widow of former President Lyndon Johnson and a lifelong advocate for the beautification of her native state, died yesterday afternoon at her Austin, Texas, home. She was 94.
Johnson had been in poor health for several years. She had a stroke May 2, 2002, and lost her ability to speak, and she was hospitalized for undisclosed reasons several weeks ago.
"She's lived a full and vibrant life," daughter Luci Baines Johnson said in 2002. "I think that the life of public service has rewards that can't be measured."
But Lady Bird Johnson's contributions can be measured, especially on spring days along the roads of Texas where bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes brighten the countryside. And in Washington, D.C., where cherry trees and dogwoods temper the impersonal look of the city; and along the nation's highways, where junk yards and billboards no longer block scenic views.
"Ugliness is so grim," she once said. "A little beauty, something that is lovely, I think, can help create harmony which lessens tensions."
When her husband embarked on his Great Society initiative, she worked to include conservation and beautification in the package.
"Getting on the subject of beautification is like picking up a tangled skein of wool," she wrote in her diary. "All the threads are interwoven — recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate, and rapid transit, and highway beautification, and the war on poverty, and parks — national, state and local. It is hard to hitch the conversation into one straight line, because everything leads to something else."
The Highway Beautification Act of 1965 became known as "Lady Bird's Bill."
But she saw herself as having other duties in the White House.
"I will try to be balm, sustainer and sometimes critic for my husband," she said of her role as first lady. "I will try to have my children look at this job with all the reverence it is due, to get from it the knowledge their unique vantage point gives them and to retain the lightheartedness to which every teenager is entitled. For my own self, my role must emerge in deeds, not words."
She was born Dec. 22, 1912, in Karnack, deep in the east Texas woods where Southern sentiments pervaded the cotton fields and bayous. Her given name was Claudia Alta Taylor, but when a maid exclaimed, "She's purty as a ladybird," it stuck.
Her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, was the wealthiest man in the area, controlling 15,000 acres of cotton and two general stores. Minnie Taylor, her mother, died when Lady Bird was only 5. Johnson later said her clearest memories of her mother were on her deathbed.
"Growing up rather alone in East Texas, I took my delights in the gifts nature afforded me daily — in the wild pink roses and dew berries I would find in the sandy lanes, or the cool pine forest with the understory of white dogwood in April, or violets by the clear stream," she said in a 1990 speech.
At the University of Texas at Austin, she earned a bachelor's degree in arts and one in journalism.
She met Lyndon Johnson in the fall of 1934 and the attraction was immediate. Two and a half months later, on Nov. 17, Lady Bird told a friend, "Lyndon and I committed matrimony last night."
While her husband began his political climb, Mrs. Johnson developed a reputation for efficiency, graciousness and devotion. Longtime friend Virginia Foster Durr said in a 1967 interview: "The household was totally adapted to Lyndon's life and Lyndon's needs and Lyndon's political career. I think Lyndon was accustomed to two adoring women all his life, his mother and his wife."
Lady Bird Johnson ran her husband's congressional office in 1942 during his brief stint in the Navy. In 1944, after 10 years of marriage and four miscarriages, the couple had their first child, Lynda Bird, on March 19. Luci Baines arrived July 2, 1947.
The following year, Lyndon Johnson was elected to the Senate by the narrowest of margins: 87 votes. But he quickly rose to become one of the most powerful majority leaders in history.
During her husband's campaign for vice president, Southern crowds responded to Lady Bird Johnson's folksy style and soft drawl. "Lady Bird carried Texas for us," Robert Kennedy remarked later.
When President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, the Johnsons were catapulted into a harsh national spotlight.
When Lyndon Johnson decided not to run again in '68, Mrs. Johnson insisted he add a phrase to his announcement. He had written, "I shall not seek" the nomination of my party. She had him add, "and I will not accept."
After LBJ's death in 1973, she worked to beautify Austin. On her 70th birthday in 1982, she helped launch the National Wildflower Center on a 42-acre site in Austin. Now, two decades later, it has moved to a lush 179-acre site and is called the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Lady Bird Johnson once told her former press secretary, "I will settle for an epitaph, 'She planted three trees.' "