Lady Bird’s Blooming Legacy
Springing from roadsides and parks throughout the nation, wildflowers in bloom showcase the work of the visionary first lady.
By Gwen Gibson
In 1965, Lady Bird Johnson decided the nation’s capital needed a facelift. So, in a bold and unprecedented move, the new first lady formed the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital and filled it with wealthy private donors and political VIPs. Through this stellar committee, she saw to it that thousands of dogwood trees, daffodils and azaleas were planted in straggly parks and neighborhoods throughout Washington, D.C. Highly popular, this program grew in to the nationwide beautification effort Johnson championed for the next 42 years of her life, earning her the reputation as our environmental first lady.
Today, thanks to her work, once-blighted areas throughout many cities and highways 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,” says Damon Waitt, the center’s senior director and botanist.
In 1982, Johnson and actress Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center 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 Johnson had long promoted.
Born Claudia Alta Taylor in 1912 in Karnack, TX, 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 near her rural hometown. 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.
Johnson 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 UT Austin, where she earned bachelor’s degrees in history and journalism. Along the way, she metamorphosed from shy country girl to successful businesswoman and astute political wife with a soft smile and iron will. In 1934, just 10 weeks after graduating from UT, Johnson 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 trailblazer, Johnson made political history in the 1964 presidential campaign 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’s 1965 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 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.
Johnson 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 cleaner, more beautiful neighborhoods “lessen tensions, create harmony and bring people together.” And she insisted, cannily, “Wildflowers are good for the pocketbook and the soul.”
Johnson felt 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, from 1965 to 1969, “over 300 conservation measures were signed in to law, forming the legal basis of the modern environmental movement,” according to a statement by the National Park Service.
On July 26, 1968, President Johnson presented his first lady 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, Johnson 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 chairwoman 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 chairwoman of the Wildflower Center’s board of directors until her death.
“She was active here to the last,” says 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 Johnson 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 Johnson wished, the ranch became a historical national park operated by the National Park Service. Everything in the park, from the Johnsons’ former living quarters to the Texas White House, is open to the public.
Johnson’s environmental legacy lives on as Texans drive down highways adorned with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes and colorful wildflowers, just as it does at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, at the LBJ Presidential Library and throughout the nation. Indeed, Johnson’s legacy is blooming in abundance wherever there are hosts of wildflowers and native plants adorning the nation’s highways and roadsides.