Wednesday, July 11, 2007

One Less Flower in Texas

Lady Bird Johnson passed away today. If you haven't spent much time in Texas its hard to understand how well loved she was here. I have never heard her name spoken without respect and frequently with reverence. On that note, and keep in mind I rarely agree with our governor, but I give him points for getting this much right:

"She inspired generations of Americans with her graceful strength, unwavering commitment to family and keen sense of social justice. Her unflagging efforts to beautify our highways and byways are a lasting legacy, through which our state will forever bear the unmistakable signature of a genuine Texan." — Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

AUSTIN, Texas - Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady who championed conservation and worked tenaciously for the political career of her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, died Wednesday, a family spokeswoman said. She was 94.

As first lady, she was perhaps best known as the determined environmentalist who wanted roadside billboards and junkyards replaced with trees and wildflowers. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to beautify Washington. The $320 million Highway Beautification Bill, passed in 1965, was known as "The Lady Bird Bill," and she made speeches and lobbied Congress to win its passage.

"Had it not been for her, I think that 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. So she figures mightily, I think, in the history of the country if for no other reason than that alone," Harry Middleton, retired director of the LBJ Library and Museum, once said.

She and her daughters remained active in her wildflower advocacy and with the LBJ Library in Austin after the former president's death in 1973. Into her 90s, Lady Bird Johnson made occasional public appearances at the library and at civic and political events, always getting a rousing reception.

President Gerald Ford appointed her to the advisory council to the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, and President Jimmy Carter named her to the President's Commission on White House Fellowships. Her long list of honors and medals include the country's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom, bestowed in 1977 by Ford.

She was born Claudia Alta Taylor on Dec. 22, 1912, in the small East Texas town of Karnack. Her father was Thomas Jefferson Taylor, a wealthy rancher and merchant. Her mother was the former Minnie Lee Patillo of Alabama, who loved books and music.

Lady Bird Johnson received her nickname in infancy from a caretaker nurse who said she was as "pretty as a lady bird." It was the name by which the world would come to know her. She disliked it, but said later, "I made my peace with it."

When Lady Bird was 5, her mother died, and her aunt, Effie Patillo, came to care for her and two older brothers.

She graduated from Marshall High School at age 15 and prepared for college at St. Mary's Episcopal School for Girls in Dallas. At the University of Texas in Austin she studied journalism and took enough education courses to qualify as a public school teacher. She received a bachelor of arts degree in 1933 and a bachelor of journalism in 1934.

In December 1972, the Johnsons gave the LBJ Ranch house and surrounding property to the United States as a National Historic Site, retaining a life estate for themselves. The property is to transfer to the federal park service after her death.

The family's privately held broadcasting company — later overseen by Luci Baines Johnson — was sold in March 2003 to Emmis Communications of Indianapolis. Lady Bird Johnson had been a director of the radio company in her later years and even attended most board meetings before her 2002 stroke.

On her 70th birthday, in 1982, she and Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center near Austin, later renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The research and education center is dedicated to the preservation and use of wildflowers and native plants.

"I'm optimistic that the world of native plants will not only survive, but will thrive for environmental and economic reasons, and for reasons of the heart. Beauty in nature nourishes us and brings joy to the human spirit," Lady Bird Johnson wrote.

In addition to her two daughters, survivors include seven grandchildren, a step-grandchild, and several great-grandchildren. full article

She may have been first lady of the nation for only a short while but she will remain the first lady of Texas' heart for years to come.