We join Texans — and Americans — everywhere in mourning the loss of a great lady, Lady Bird Johnson, who died Wednesday at age 94 at her Austin, Texas, home.
Johnson, as much as anyone, embodied the legendary Southern charm and Texas hospitality with her warm, genteel demeanor. That outward calm belied a strength of character that was necessary to handle her powerful, headstrong husband, the late president Lyndon Johnson.
Just like the president was best known by his initials LBJ — more like a cattleman’s brand than a politician’s name, Lady Bird’s nickname was a perfect fit. The fact that the initials matched her husband’s is pure coincidence. Born Claudia Alta Taylor in the town of Karnack, Texas, she was given the life moniker as a baby by a nanny who said she was “pretty as a lady bird.”
She was a brilliant scholar, graduating from Marshall High School at age 15 with grades that qualified her to be class valedictorian. She graciously turned down the honor — legend has it that she declined because she didn’t want to give a speech at graduation. By age 22 she had multiple degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and a state teaching certificate.
After marrying LBJ she overcame her aversion to public speaking and stumped heavily for her husband in all his campaigns, charming audiences in a sweet Southern drawl that is sadly fading into history. Even after their political life ended she continued to make public appearances for organizations and causes she supported.
Johnson is best known for championing conservation and the use of native plants; in 1982 she founded National Wildflower Research Center, which now bears her name.
Rather than simply create refuges and centers to display wildflowers, Johnson essentially turned the entire state, and the country, into public gardens where anyone could see and appreciate native plants.
Her method was simple; she convinced state officials to incorporate native plants into public works projects. Instead of using concrete medians, new highways were designed with wide swaths of green space instead, with oleanders and other bushes set up to replace stark metal and concrete guardrails. The change didn’t just add beauty to the countless miles of state roads, it also is credited with providing softer and safer barricades for wayward vehicles, and shielding drivers from the glare of oncoming headlights. Seeds of bluebonnets, Indian paint brushes and other wildflowers were strewn everywhere, adding color to the otherwise drab strips of pavement throughout Texas.
Lady Bird Johnson promoted such measures as first lady, even before ecology and conservation became popular causes. And she promoted it in practical ways that have touched virtually every Texan.
She leaves a living legacy that befits a true icon of Texas history.