Who is Lady Bird Johnson? 2012: A Centennial Tribute.

July 30, 2012by Brian Talley

Lady_Bird_Johnson_3_years_oldWhen Lady Bird Johnson died of natural causes on July 11th, 2007 at the age of 94, Downtown Austin’s beloved Town Lake was renamed Lady Bird Lake in her honor. The Texas Legislature and Texas Governor Rick Perry recently declared 2012 the “Lady Bird Johnson Centennial Year” in honor of the 100th anniversary of her birth. Who is this legendary Texas woman, also known as the Environmental First Lady?

Devoted wife of the 36th President, CEO of a Texas broadcasting empire, and a nationally-recognized environmentalist, Lady Bird Johnson achieved worldwide recognition during her lifetime. She is especially beloved in her home state of Texas, where South Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center bears her name, and where LBJ Ranch and capitol-area buildings like the LBJ Library continue to bear her husband’s name.

When a nursemaid called two-year-old Claudia “purty as a lady bird,” her lifelong nickname of Lady Bird was inspired. Born December 22nd, 1912, Claudia Alta Taylor was the youngest child of a successful East Texas merchant. When she was five, her mother Minnie died tragically from falling down a flight of stairs. Her mother was a few months pregnant at the time.

Lyndon_B_and_Lady_Bird_JohnsonAs a young woman, Lady Bird spent much of her time in the woods or canoeing on the lakes of East Texas. “My heart found its home long ago in the beauty, mystery, order and disorder of the flowering earth. I wanted future generations to be able to savor what I had all my life.” It was the solace and joy Lady Bird discovered in nature that inspired her later advocacy for the environment.

The year 1934 was a pivotal one for Lady Bird Taylor. After earning a bachelor of arts in journalism from the University of Texas, she fatefully met her future husband and the future president of the United States. The gregarious Lyndon Baines Johnson (then aide to Texas Congressman Richard Kleberg) literally bumped into her, and whispered, “Meet me in the dining room of the Driskill Hotel.” Against her better judgment, she said yes. Within ten weeks, the couple was married.

Lady Bird would play a crucial role in the success of her husband’s political career. When a congressman from his district died of a heart attack, LBJ worried he would not have the financial support to run in special elections.

Drawing from her inheritance from her mother, Lady Bird stepped in and supported Lyndon with $10,000. Her moral and financial support enabled her husband to both run and win the back-breaking 42-day campaign. He was sworn in as a member of the House on May 13th, 1937.

LBJ_Library_Photo_Lady_Bird_Johnson_Planting_a_TreeAfter a failed senate-bid and shipping off for active duty, Lady Bird realized her husband would not be able to support a family with politics alone. She used more of her mother’s inheritance to purchase a failing daytime-only radio station in Austin.

In her capable, hard-working hands, the broadcasting company slowly grew to include both an AM and FM radio station, as well as a television station. Eventually, it would serve as a base for a multi-million dollar communications company. Lady Bird Johnson, the only First Lady to build and maintain a fortune with her own money, retained an active role in her company well into her 80s.

While Lyndon continued to build his political career, finally earning a place on the Texas Senate, Lady Bird struggled to build the communications company while starting their family. The Johnsons endured three miscarriages trying to bring Lynda Bird and Luci Baines into the world, and a fourth afterward dashed their hopes for a son.

Meanwhile, Lady Bird Johnson continued to prove herself as a woman of action and of cause on the Hill. When Lyndon Bayne Johnson (LBJ) became Vice President, Lady Bird visited 33 foreign countries as a goodwill ambassador.

After John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, it was Lady Bird’s gracious warmth and southern courtesy that helped her husband navigate a challenging political climate. When he ran for re-election in 1964, it was Lady Bird who faced an angry South from a whistle-stop train, standing up to the hate and scorn that arose from his signage of the Civil Rights Act. Once discounted as the shy wife of then House Representative Lyndon Johnson, the now First Lady had found her voice, delivering compelling speeches in a soft southern drawl.

As First Lady, Lady Bird championed two main causes: poverty and the environment. She served as honorary chairman of the national Head Start Program for pre-school children, and campaigned across the U.S. to promote nature areas and roadside beauty.

The Highway Beautification Act of 1965, known as “Lady Bird’s Bill,” is just one result of her determination to protect the environment. In 1965, Lyndon honored her influence in the White House years by presenting her with pens from more than 50 pieces of environmental legislation he signed as president.

“I know that the nature we are concerned with ultimately is human nature. That is the point of the beautification movement, and that finally is the point of architecture. Winston Churchill said, ‘First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us.’ The same is true of our highways, our parks, our public buildings, the environment we create. They shape us.”

Want to learn more about Texas legend Lady Bird Johnson? Celebrate her life by attending one of the following Central Texas events in her honor listed below, or take the Texas Lady Bird “Legacy Tour” to the sites she called home for decades after her White House years. For more information and updates to the events you see below, please visit ladybirdjohnson.org!

Lady_Bird_Johnson_Centennial_Texas_Tour_MapLadybird Johnson Centennial Events

July 29, 2012 - Lady Bird Johnson Tribute Day at the Wildflower Center. During this free admission Sunday with extended hours, granddaughter’s Catherine and Jennifer Robb will unveil a new Lady Bird Johnson exhibit in the Wildflower Center’s Visitors gallery. A memorabilia tour, children’s play and storytelling are also among the offerings as we commemorate July 26, 1968, when President Johnson presented Mrs. Johnson with 50 pens used to sign major environmental legislation inspired by her work.

Sept. 1-Dec. 2, 2012 - “Lady Bird’s Lake”: Photos and mementos about Mrs. Johnson’s beautification of the banks of Town Lake (now called Lady Bird Lake) will be on display in the McDermott Learning Center at the Wildflower Center. The exhibit features photos by Jen Ohlson and Brenda Lindfors from the book “Every Town Needs a Trail,” as well as art by Margie Crisp and the late Diane Grammer.

Thursday, September 20, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. (Tentative) Reception for Peggy Mays and Family and Lady Bird’s Lake exhibit - The Mays family will be honored for their Centennial contribution to upgrade the McDermott Learning Center at the Wildflower Center.

September 22 and 23, 2012 – Children and their families are invited to come to the LBJ State Park to help scatter wildflower seeds provided by the park staff in the open areas and fields. Participants will learn more about the First Lady and her passion for nature, beautification, and the outdoors. The Seed Stomp occurs 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. both days.

Thursday, November 8, 2012 – Lady Bird Johnson Centennial Symposium on Early Childhood Education at Texas State University-San Marcos. This symposium will address the issues, progress and challenges of early childhood education in recognition of Lady Bird Johnson’s work as the honorary chair of the board of the original Head Start program. Keynote speaker will be Vivian Paley, a lauded teacher, author and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient.

November 15, 2012 – First Ladies Symposium and Evening Program. Laura Bush and Barbara Bush discuss their experiences after two panel discussions that feature historians and staff of present and former first ladies at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library & Museum.

December, 2012 - Private opening of a new permanent exhibit and black-tie gala at the LBJ Library.

December, 2012 Public opening of a new permanent exhibit at the LBJ Library.

December 16, 2012 – Come join the Texas Hill Country community for the 43rd Annual LBJ Tree Lighting at the LBJ State Park.  This is a fun evening you won’t want to miss as we celebrate Mrs. Johnson’s life and legacy, and bring in the holiday season. Enjoy music, a live nativity, Santa Claus and of course, the spectacular tree lighting. Then step back in time to the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm special German cookies and cakes, amid glowing lanterns, and a traditional candlelit German Christmas tree.

Spring 2013 – Presentation of Lady Bird Johnson Environmental Award by the LBJ Foundation and LBJ School of Public Affairs with a dinner at the LBJ Library. An address to students or an LBJ School conference keynote speech by the award winner likely will occur the following day.

Spring 2013 – Conference on Lady Bird Johnson’s environmental legacy—in possible conjunction with an award presentation—at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Austin REALTOR® Brian Talley celebrates Texas history and Lady Bird Johnson. He is also the founder of Regent Property Group. Looking for a luxury home in Central Texas? Brian helps home-buyers stay on top of the latest in Lake Austin home trends. Check out Austin Home Search!