Johnson, Lady Bird
Johnson, Lady Bird
Born Claudia Alta Taylor, December 22, 1912, in Karnack, TX; died of natural causes, July 11, 2007, in Austin, TX. First Lady, business owner, and advocate. Married to U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Lady Bird Johnson carved out her own identity as an active political wife and used her position to encourage conservation and beautification projects in the United States. She was also a formidable businesswoman, who built ownership of one radio station in Austin into a multimillion dollar communications empire.
Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor on December 22, 1912, in the family home in Karnack, Texas. She was the youngest of three and only daughter, of Thomas Jefferson Taylor and his wife Minnie Lee (nee Patillo). Her father was a successful businessman, owning two country stores among other interests. Johnson was dubbed Lady Bird by family servant Alice Tittle when she was a toddler because the woman believed Johnson was “purty as a lady bird,” according to CNN.com. Her mother died after a fall when she was five years old, and a maiden maternal aunt, Effie Patillo, moved to Texas to help raise her.
After graduating from Marshall High School at 15, Johnson continued her education at St. Mary’s Episcopal School for Girls, a Dallas-based junior college. Johnson later transferred to the University of Texas at Austin. Johnson earned her B.A. in history in 1933 and a journalism degree in 1934 as well as a teaching certificate. After completing her education, she wanted to become a newspaper reporter.
However, those plans were put aside when she met Lyndon Johnson, then an aide to Representative Richard M. Kleinberg in Washington. The couple had a swift courtship—he asked her to be his wife the day after they met—and married on November 17, 1934. She left her career aspirations aside and supported her husband’s political ambitions. In 1937, Johnson helped fund her husband’s first political campaign for a congressional seat with $10,000 against her inheritance from her mother. He won the seat. She later helped manage his Congressional office when he served in active duty in the U.S. Navy during World War II. She became Lyndon Johnson’s public face and spoke for him during this time period.
While Johnson became the consummate political wife, she developed her own business opportunities. In 1942, she used more inheritance funds to buy a radio station in Austin, Texas, which was failing. She spent $17,500 for the station, and her husband’s influence in Washington to secure FCC (Federal Communications Commission) approval for both power and air time increases were vital to its success. Lyndon Johnson also helped land a CBS af- filiation for the station. Johnson used the station to build a vast communications company, which included television stations and cable interests in Austin and elsewhere, as well as other business interests such as real estate and a bank. Motherhood was also important to Johnson. She gave birth to two daughters in Washington, D.C., Lynda Bird and Luci Baines, in the mid1940s.
As Johnson was constructing her company and her family, her husband’s political star was rising. Lyndon Johnson eventually won a seat in the U.S. Senate, and later became the youngest Senate majority leader. By the late 1950s, he wanted to run for the presidency in 1960, but lost the nomination to Kennedy; however, Lyndon Johnson agreed to be Kennedy’s running mate, and Johnson helped her husband and Kennedy campaign to victory. After becoming the vice president’s wife, she continued to travel throughout the United States and the world to promote the positions and causes of the president and her husband as well her own environmental concerns.
After Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Lyndon Johnson became president and Johnson, first lady. When he took office, she began spending an hour a day recording impressions of her life as first lady. The 1.7 million words she produced were condensed into an 800page nonfiction book, A White House Diary, published in 1971.
In 1964, Johnson helped her husband win the presidency outright in a landslide, logging many miles as she campaigned on his behalf. As first lady, Johnson used her position to encourage nationwide support for her husband’s programs, including Head Start, the Job Corps, and the War on Poverty. Johnson herself had long been interested in nature, conservation, and beautification. She used her influence with her husband to get the Highway Beautifi-cation Act of 1965 passed, which limited billboards and encouraged the planting of flowers and trees. Johnson was also concerned with improving the nation’s capital during her husband’s time in office, leading to the founding of the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital.
Johnson declined to seek an elected second term in 1968, and the Johnsons left Washington in 1969. The couple retired to their ranch in Texas, and Johnson helped establish her husband’s presidential library at the University of Texas in Austin. The library opened in 1971. Johnson became a widow in 1973, when the former president died of a heart attack.
After her husband’s death, Johnson lived primarily in Austin. Natural beauty remained important to Johnson in widowhood as she founded the National Wildflower Research Center near Austin in 1982. The institute was intended to support research and preservation of native plants in the United States. In 1998, the center was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in her honor. Johnson also was member of the Board of Regents at the University of Texas and helped her son-in-law, Charles Robb, with his political campaigns. She was awarded the Medal of Freedom in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.
Late in life Johnson suffered ill health. Suffering a stroke in 1993, she was later declared legally blind because of macular degeneration. In 2002, she suffered another stroke which took away most of her ability to speak. She was able to communicate by writing, however. A month after being hospitalized for a low-grade fever, Johnson died on July 11, 2007, at her home in Austin. She was 94 and had been in declining health in the last few months of her life. Johnson is survived by her daughters, Lynda and Luci; seven grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. Sources: CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com (July 17, 2007); Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2007, pp.A1,A20-A21; New York Times, July 12, 2007, pp. A1, C12; Times (London), July 13, 2007, p. 60; Washington Post, July 12, 2007, pp. A1, A12-A13.