Texas has given the United States just two First Ladies, but few have had more of an impact or lasting legacy than Lady Bird Johnson. Decades before everyone was talking about “going green,” she earned the title of “our environmental first lady.”
Born Claudia Alta Taylor in the East Texas town of Karnack on December 22, 1912, legend has it that a nursemaid said she was “as purty as a lady bird” and the nickname lasted a lifetime. So did her love for nature, which she acquired as a little girl paddling on the bayous of Caddo Lake beneath the cypress trees and Spanish moss.
Lady Bird wasn’t just “purty”; she was extremely bright. She graduated from high school at age 16, attended a private girls’ school in Dallas and then enrolled at the University of Texas where she received a Bachelor of Arts in History in 1933 and a Bachelor of Journalism with honors in 1934. That same year she met Lyndon Johnson, a tall and handsome congressional secretary visiting Austin, and within weeks they were engaged and married.
For the next 30 years Lady Bird supported Johnson as he moved from Congressman to Senator to Vice President, and she raised daughters Lynda Bird and Luci Baines. But then her world changed forever on Nov. 22, 1963. Few images in American history are as indelible as that of Lady Bird standing beside Lyndon Johnson as he took the oath of office following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was then that she entered the national spotlight and started to make her mark.
Lady Bird stood beside the president again in championing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but her most personal and defining cause was the Beautification Act of 1965 that started the new wave of environmentalism in the United States.
“Though the word beautification makes the concept sound merely cosmetic, it involves much more: clean water, clean air, clean roadsides, safe waste disposal and preservation of valued old landmarks as well as great parks and wilderness areas,” she said. “To me…beautification means our total concern for the physical and human quality we pass on to our children and the future.”
Many people are unaware of Lady Bird’s prowess as a business woman, which started in 1943 when she bought a failing low-power daytime-only Austin radio station with an inheritance from her mother. With her journalism degree and a hands-on work ethic, she grew the business into LBJ Holding Company with multiple television and radio stations and a cable TV system.
Still, the natural environment was always her main interest and in 1982 on her 70th birthday she provided funding and 60 acres to create the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin. As before, her goal was to do more than just plant flowers. The center is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of native plants in natural and planned landscapes, which not only provides natural beauty but helps preserve precious water, reduces erosion, and reduces maintenance costs and time. The center was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on her 85th birthday in 1997.
Lady Bird died in 2007 at the age of 94. Proud Texan to the core, she was buried in the family cemetery in Stonewall next to her husband.