Lady Bird's Legacy
With quiet strength, Lady Bird Johnson advocated for the environment, education, and regional beauty
By Barbara Rodriguez
Her voice was pure molasses, the rolling sweetness of a Southern drawl sometimes enlivened—in the service of a good cause—with an ardent edge. Hers became the voice of more than one good cause in her lifetime; early on it beguiled a future president, who, aware of its power, enlisted it to convince the South of the justice of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Later it became the voice of ecological conservancy. Throughout her life, from inspiring the Highway Beautification Act in 1965 to establishing her eponymous Wildflower Center in 1982, Lady Bird Johnson’s voice helped make flowers bloom. Last winter, I decided it was time to introduce her voice, familiar to me from childhood, to my son Elliott.
As we tour, I remark to my son on what it took for a woman of Lady Bird’s era to step up from behind a great man and take the podium.
Her parents named her Claudia Alta Taylor. Her nanny said she was as “purty as a lady bird,” and the nickname stuck. To Lyndon Baines Johnson, who courted and wed her in a made-for-the-movies, 11-week romance in 1934, she was simply Bird. Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor Johnson was born on December 22, 1912, in Karnack, a gallop from Caddo Lake. But it was in and around her adopted home place, the Texas Hill Country, that my son and I sought the pleasure of her legacy. First, we toured the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall. Another day, another incarnation was revealed at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on the southwest edge of Austin. At the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum, on the northeast corner of the University of Texas campus, we connected the dots. There, glimpses of the East Texas girl who imagined finding adventure teaching in “some place like Hawaii,” the carefully composed First Lady, the supportive wife, the thoughtful mother, and the sage and gritty conservationist are each on display, connected gently by love letters, speeches, a series of jaunty hats, glittery gowns, and a dandy little pair of boots (not to mention a pair of green bowling shoes).
Lady Bird, who died in 2007 at the age of 94, lives on in each of the places we visited. The funny thing was, the more we explored Lady Bird’s life, the more my son learned about me.
I can’t claim to have known her, but she was a fixture in my early life because my mother followed her every move and spoke of her adoringly as a testimony to the power of female persuasion. I saw her in person only once. She was gliding through the Austin airport at the rate of a Rose Bowl parade float, slowed by a flank of secret service and a small retinue of other supporters. Her dress was classic and timeless; her shoes were sensible, but handsome; her hair looked attractively no-nonsense. But it was her accessibility that impressed me. She made eye contact with those she passed and smiled warmly in answer to greetings. I tell Elliott this story as we drive toward the Texas White House at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall. As an epilogue, I confess my regret at once having turned down a dinner invitation from Lady Bird’s press secretary, Liz Carpenter. I knew he’d been paying attention when he whips toward me and says, “What were you thinking?!” It is a question I have asked myself often.
Looking for Lady Bird
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park has two visitor areas, in Johnson City and in Stonewall. The Johnson City District, including the National Park Visitor Center and President Johnson’s Boyhood Home, is off US 290 in Johnson City. Call 830/868-7128.
LBJ State Park, which serves as the gateway to the Texas White House, is on US 290, 14 miles west of Johnson City in Stonewall. Here is where you can pick up a free permit to drive through the Ranch (daily 9-5). Guided tours of the Texas White House ($2, free age 15 and younger) are offered 10 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Call 830/644-2252.
The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library & Museum is at 2313 Red River St. in Austin. Parts of the museum will be closed during a year-long
The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is at 4801 La Crosse Ave. in Austin. The center will showcase Lady Bird-inspired exhibits this year indoors and in its central gardens. A new arboretum opens mid-May. Call 512/232-0100.
From the March 2012 issue.