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Lady Bird’s Living Legacy

March 5, 2013

Lady Bird’s Living Legacy

By Gwen Gibson

In 1965, Lady Bird Johnson decided that the nation’s capital needed a facelift. So, in a bold and unprecedented move, the new first lady formed a Committee for a More Beautiful Capital and filled it with wealthy private donors and political VIPs. Through this stellar committee, she saw that thousands of dogwood trees, daffodils and azaleas were planted in straggly parks and neighborhoods throughout Washington, D.C. Highly popular, this program grew into the nationwide beautification effort that Lady Bird championed for the next 42 years of her life. No wonder she is called our environmental first lady.

Today, thanks to her work, once-blighted areas around many cities and highways still come to life in the spring with native plants and brightly colored wildflowers. But the centerpiece of her legacy is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 10 miles southwest of downtown Austin. In this 279-acre Center, some 650 species of plants and trees native to Central Texas are displayed and nurtured, and that’s just part of the picture.  The Center offers hiking trails, woodlands and gardens as well as exhibits, lectures, conferences and family-friendly programs throughout the year. In addition, it operates a nationally-known center of information on the sustainable use and conservation of native plants, wildflowers and landscapes.

“This is the physical expression of Mrs. Johnson’s love of nature—the place where her ideals are expressed to the world,” said Damon Waitt, the Center’s senior director and botanist.

Mrs. Johnson founded the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982 with actress Helen Hayes on 60 acres of undeveloped land east of Austin. By 1995, having outgrown this site, the Center moved to its present location. In 1998 it was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. In 2006, it became an organizational research unit of the University of Texas at Austin, a move Mrs. Johnson had long promoted.

Born Claudia Alta Taylor in 1912 in Karnack, Texas, Mrs. Johnson answered all her life to the “Lady Bird” nickname given her as a small child. Her mother died when she was five and, as her parents’ only daughter, Lady Bird spent many hours alone in the lush natural fields around her rural home town. She often reminisced about the cypress trees lining Caddo Lake and the Spanish moss that hung from them, forming a canopy, and she fought all her life to protect such settings for everyone.

Lady Bird attended high school at nearby Marshall and went to junior college at St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls in Dallas. In 1930 she entered the University of Texas at Austin where she earned bachelor’s degrees in history and journalism.  Along the way she metamorphosed from shy country girl to successful business woman and astute political wife with a soft smile and iron will.

In 1934, just ten weeks after graduating from UT, Lady Bird married the tall, handsome Lyndon B. Johnson, then a Congressional aide. She soon became his most influential political adviser. She also successfully ran Austin broadcasting stations from 1943 to 1972.

A mild-mannered trail blazer, Lady Bird made political history in the 1964 presidential campaigns by making a 1,628-mile train trip through eight Southern states on behalf of the Democratic ticket. She faced angry crowds but usually won them over with her soothing smile and firm voice. It was the first time a First Lady had campaigned without the President at her side.

Emboldened by this successful trip, she launched her beautification program just two weeks after LBJ’s1965 inauguration. Her goal, she said, was to put “the whole field of conservation and beautification” on the national agenda.  President Johnson fully supported her efforts to beautify America and he went to bat with Congress for her more controversial highway beautification program, launched later that year.

The latter program was designed to reduce the number of junkyards and billboards along the nation’s highways. This didn’t succeed as well as beautification due to protests by the powerful billboard industry. “But I hope we tempered the spread of them,” she said in later years.

Lady Bird never liked the word “beautification” and struggled to find something better. But the term survived and came to represent what she called ““the whole broad tapestry of environment—clean air, clean water, scenic rivers, new national parks, wilderness areas.”

Plugging her programs, she would argue that cleaner, more beautiful neighborhoods “lessen tensions, create harmony and bring people together.” And she insisted, cannily, that “wildflowers are good for the pocket book and the soul.”

Lady Bird felt that her programs worked hand in hand with President Johnson’s Great Society, especially his war on poverty and crime and his Head Start program.

Clearly, their partnership paid off. During the Johnson administration, 1965 to 1969, “over 300 conservation measures were signed into law, forming the legal basis of the modern environmental movement,” said a statement by the National Park Service.

On July 26, 1968, President Johnson presented Lady Bird with 50 pens he used to sign environmental legislation she had proposed and influenced. Two other presidents recognized her achievements. In 1977, President Gerald Ford presented her with the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian award. In 1988, she received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Ronald Reagan.

Unlike many other first ladies, Lady Bird continued to champion her causes after leaving the White House. She worked from her office at the LBJ Presidential Library for some 25 years, sponsoring programs and symposiums on civil rights, women’s rights and the environment. She was the honorary, hands-on chairman of the Town Lake Beautification Committee which directed the planting of hundreds of shrubs, trees and plants around the once muddy Colorado River in downtown Austin. This is now Lady Bird Lake. And she served as chairman of the Wildflower Center’s board of directors until her death.

“She was active here to the last,” said Susan Rieff, the Center’s executive director. “Three weeks before she died she took a tour of the gardens with Damon [Waitt]. She couldn’t talk and could barely see. But she knew everything that was going on and where every garden was.”

Lady Bird died in July 2007 at age 94. She is buried next to her husband at the LBJ ranch, 50 miles west of Austin.  In 2008, as Lady Bird wished, the ranch became a historical national park, operated by the National Park Service. Everything here—from the Johnsons’ former living quarters to the Texas White House—is open to the public.

Lady Bird’s environmental legacy lives on here as it does at the Wildflower Center and the LBJ Presidential Library and around the nation, wherever we see a host of golden daffodils.

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