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Lady Bird Johnson - 1912–2007
ISSUE:
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74-75

There’s a brightness that one notices when jogging around the nature trails of downtown Austin or while moseying along the common (and research) paths of what was formerly known as the National Wildflower Research Center. It isn’t just the warm Texas sun, but rather the palpable and permanent remains of a legacy, whose creator was originally nicknamed for a lady bug.

Lady Bird Johnson, former first lady, environmentalist, and wildflower lover, died of causes associated with her age of 94 on July 11, 2007, in Austin, Texas.1 She accomplished more in her life than many people could in 2 lifetimes. For example, she is the reason many of the nation’s highways are adorned with wildflowers instead of billboards and junk yards.

The Beautification Act of 1965, also known as “The Lady Bird Bill,” was presented to Lady Bird as a “gift” from her husband Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States.2 The project was invested with $320 million for cleaning up the landscaping along highways.

“Had it not been for her, I think the whole subject of the environment might not have been introduced to the public stage in just the way it was and just the time it was,” Harry Middleton, retired director of the LBJ Library and Museum at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Associated Press.3

“She was our nation’s first environmentalist, before environmentalism was even acknowledged as an issue and challenge,” said Flo Oxley, the director of conservation and education at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin (e-mail, July 25, 2007).

Lady Bird Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor on December 22, 1912, in Karnack, TX. Her nursemaid once described her as “purty as a lady bird,” another name for a lady bug, a black and red beetle. The nickname stuck for life.2

“I was a baby and in no position to protest,” Lady Bird once said of the name, according to the New York Times.4

By 1934 she had received 2 bachelor degrees from the University of Texas at Austin in journalism and history. She also married in 1934, and in 1943 she bought her own radio station in Austin called KTBC.2 She ran many parts of the station herself and soon her AM/FM station extended to include a television station and an entire cable system. She sold those in 1972, and in 1973 the call letters KTBC were changed to KLBJ. Still a radio empire, Lady Bird was involved in KLBJ well into her 80s.2

Radio commentator and local Central Texas author and humorist Richard “Cactus” Pryor worked for Mrs. Johnson at KTBC radio and television—now KLBJ AM and FM radio—since 1947. “I went to work for her 60 years ago. I watched her grow and change as a businesswoman, as a family friend, especially the changes in her life after [President Johnson] died. It’s amazing, all the many good things we’ve heard over the past few years of what she did for so many people, in so many ways—things she could not have done if he were still here” (oral communication to M. Blumenthal, July 19, 2007).

Lady Bird went on to encourage 200 laws that involved the environment. This was a contributing factor to the renaming of the Columbia Island in the Potomac River to Lady Bird Johnson Park. Lady Bird also served on the National Parks Advisory Board and the Highway Beautification Board.4

After her time in Washington, she focused her attention on Austin, her home for over 30 years.2,3 She pushed for the beautification of the hike-and-bike trail around Town Lake in the center of Austin, now renamed Lady Bird Lake by the Austin City Council, effective August 6, 2007.5 For 20 years, beginning in 1969, she created grants from her own funds to award highways that used native plants in their planning. She also served on the University of Texas Board of Regents.

Lady Bird Johnson loved wildflowers—especially those native to Texas. When asked which wildflower was her favorite, “she would respond, ‘They are like my children, I can’t have just one favorite,’” said Damon Waitt, PhD, senior botanist and director of the Native Plant Information Network at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (e-mail, July 25, 2007). However, it wasn’t just a fleeting fancy; she was very knowledgeable about native plants.

“Unlike many who see the plant world as just a green backdrop for their life, Mrs. Johnson was intimately familiar with the Texas flora and conversed with ease on topics ranging from ecology to plant taxonomy,” said Dr. Waitt.

She co-founded the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982 to provide information about native plants on a national level. According to David K. Northington, PhD, principal and partner of DINI Partners (a nonprofit fundraising consultancy) and the first executive director of the Wildflower Center for 13 years, the Center was not a project to which Mrs. Johnson merely leant her name (oral communication, July 30, 2007). She was very involved in every aspect of the Center.

“She didn’t want the sweet-old-lady treatment,” said Dr. Northington. “She wanted scientific names [etc.] and she flat understood it. She was totally involved in the full details from the research to what the gift store carried.”

Originally Dr. Northington wasn’t positive about taking the job as the first director since he had tenure in the Botany department at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “At first we were a small staff of 4 in a one-bedroom house with a large hayfield to work with,” Dr. Northington said. “We were aware it would be a huge challenge for this modest start to become anything.”

That little hayfield did not remain large enough to contain Lady Bird’s vision. She opened a new Center in 1995, which became her namesake on her 85th birthday in 1997.

“Mrs. Johnson, being very modest and unassuming, was not in favor of having the organization named after her,” said Oxley. “But she knew it was important to the Board and she graciously allowed them to do it.”

The Center’s name morphed again, after becoming a part of a major university in 2006. Now it bears the name: The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin.

“This is something that Mrs. Johnson was very much in favor of,” said Oxley. “By becoming a part of the University of Texas at Austin, the legacy, work, and vision of Mrs. Johnson have been guaranteed.”

The intension of the Center has also shifted. Originally it was intended to make wildflower seeds and native plant information available on a national level so other places could beautify the landscapes around their highways, but today it focuses more on the use of native plants in planning and planting in open areas and home landscapes.

What was once limited to 43 acres now encompasses 279 acres, with more than 700 species of plants on display.2 According to Oxley, the Center’s goal is to be the premier voice for preserving native plants and landscapes and to educate the public about environmental issues. The Center also uses its magazine, Wildflower, to educate people about the benefits and the beauty of native plants.6

Another goal for the Center is land restoration. This includes healing damaged, degraded, and destroyed ecosystems to restore balance to the landscape. This can be accomplished with the implementation of green roofs, using native plants to solve design challenges, and designing landscapes to conserve water—through storm water purification and infiltration—and require less fertilizers and pesticides.

These are all things that the Lady Bird Johnson legacy fostered. Without her, the country might not be where it is today in regards to conservation. And even in light of all her accomplishments, she remained modest.

“The thing that most struck me about Mrs. Johnson was that she was an ordinary person,” said Oxley. “There were never any airs, she never acted like she was more special than anyone else...[She] was an example of how one person can truly make a difference.”

Lady Bird Johnson is survived by daughters Luci Johnson and Lynda Robb, 7 grandchildren, and 10 great grandchildren. Her private funeral was attended by approximately 1,800 people, including first lady Laura Bush, former first lady Barbara Bush, former President Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, former President Jimmy Carter, former first lady Nancy Reagan, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, daughter of President John F. Kennedy, and Texas Governor Rick Perry.7 Mrs. Johnson was buried at the Johnson family cemetery near the banks of the Pedernales River on the LBJ ranch in Stonewall, TX. In 1972 the Johnsons donated the LBJ ranch house and surrounding land to the people of America as a historical site.2

—Kelly E. Saxton
References
  1. First lady left scenic beauty in her path; Lady Bird Johnson, 19122007. The Seattle Times. July 12, 2007;A1.

  2. Lady Bird Johnson: 1912-2007. The Lady Bird Johnson: Final Tribute Web site. Available at: http://www.ladybirdjohnsontribute.org/biography.htm. Accessed June 13, 2007.

  3. Shannon K. Lady Bird Johnson, first lady who championed beautification, dies at 94. Associated Press. July 12, 2007; International News.

  4. Nemy E. Lady Bird Johnson, 94, dies; eased a path to power. New York Times. July 12, 2007;A01.

  5. Coppola S. Lady Bird Lake is Town Lake’s new moniker. Austin American-Statesman. July 27, 2007. Available at: http://www.statesman.com/news/content/news/stories/local/07/27/0727ladybird.html. Accessed July 31, 2007.

  6. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin Web site. Available at: http://www.wildflower.org/. Accessed July 11, 2007.

  7. Shannon K. Lady Bird Johnson, former first lady, remembered at Texas funeral attended by 1,800. The Associated Press. July 14, 2007; Domestic News.