Lady Bird Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack, Harrison County, Texas in 1912. Her father was Thomas Jefferson Taylor II, who owned a general store and used the profits to acquire farmland that he used to plant cotton. At one time he owned 12,000 acres of land dedicated to raising cotton. Claudia’s mother was the former Minnie Pattillo. Thomas and Minnie were married in 1900 and both had originally come to Texas from Alabama. Claudia was the youngest of three children and the only daughter born to Minnie and Thomas. The family legend is that a caretaker had given the nickname Lady Bird to her, saying that she was as pretty as a lady bird.
Lady Bird went to school in Karnack and Jefferson, Texas and also attended school for short time in Alabama. She graduated early from Marshall (Texas) High School and attended St. Mary’s College, no longer in existence but formerly a college for girls operated under a branch of the Episcopal Church. The school closed about 1930, about the time Lady Bird enrolled at University of Texas at Austin. There she earned a Bachelor’s degree in history in 1933 and a Bachelor’s degree journalism, graduating cum laude, in 1934. It was in Austin that she met her future husband, Lyndon Baines Johson, shortly after she graduated from college.
The couple dated briefly and were married several months later in November of 1934 at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas. After a short honeymoon in Mexico, they set up their home in Washington, DC. At the time, Johnson had been serving as an aide to U. S. Representative Richard Kleberg. Although her life after this was somewhat defined by the career of her husband Lyndon Johnson, she remained a winsome and appealing person. Johnson ran for a seat in the U. S. Congress in 1937. He then served in the U. S. Navy during World War II. He did not resign his office, and Lady Bird effectively ran it while he served. Also during World War II, Lady Bird acquired radio station KTBC in Austin which became the first holding of a successful family business for the Johnsons. Lady Bird was said to have a strong business sense and developed and diversified the holdings, creating financial income for the family.
After the war, Johnson was elected to the U. S. Senate. Johnson had served six terms in Congress from 1937 to 1949, and went on to serve in the Senate until 1961. While living in Washington, the oldest of their two daughters (Lynda) was born in 1944 and the youngest (Lucy) was born in 1947. A life long Democrat, he campaigned for President in 1960, losing to John Kennedy, after which he was selected as Kennedy’s Vice President. Johnson may have had qualms about accepting the role of Vice President, but the Kennedy-Johnson ticket was made more popular in the South with Johnson’s presence. Lady Bird was a tireless campaigner. Johnson ascended to the presidency in 1963 following the assassination of President Kennedy in Texas. The President, Governor John Connally and their spouses were in the car together and the Johnsons were behind them in another car the motorcade. Lady Bird was thrust into the role of First Lady.
Lady Bird was involved in the issues that were prominent in the next presidential election, including civil rights. Johnson pressed for passage of the bill that became known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That year, Johnson went on to win the nomination at the Democratic National Convention and then proceeded to defeat Sen. Barry Goldwater handily in the national election.
As First Lady, she was involved in issues of the administration and took a special interest in issues that were important to her, such as women’s education and leadership, the war on poverty, environmental issues, beautification of the land, conservation, education of underpriviledged children and the like. She also received and dealt with criticism for the administration’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Both of the Johnson sons in law served in Vietnam.
Johnson’s health was also a major concern, having survived an earlier heart attack in 1955. The years of his presidency seemed to take a toll on him and Lady Bird encouraged him not to run for a second term. Johnson agreed and made a now familiar nationally televised speech announcing his decision.
(Image credit: New York Times)
Once the couple retired, they returned to the family property just outside Stonewall, Texas. Lady Bird continued to speak and act on issues that were important to her. The couple worked on planning the presidential library on the campus of University of Texas in Austin. Lady Bird also served a term as a regent of University of Texas from 1971 to 1977.
Johnson suffered what was termed a massive heart attack in the summer of 1972 and died in early 1973. The couple had deeded their ranch to the National Park Service in late 1972 but retained the right to live there. Following Johnson’s death it became her residence. Lady Bird continued to remain active in issues such as women’s rights, environmentalism and the like. She received numerous awards for her work and achievements in these areas.
Lady Bird suffered a stroke in 1993 and lost much of her vision due to macular degeneration. She suffered another stroke in 1999 as her health continued to decline. Lady Bird died in 2007 and was buried in the Johnson Family Cemetery on the LJB Ranch in Texas. At the age of 94, she had become the longest living First Lady, though the longest living First Lady in history is still Bess Truman (97), as of this writing.
Lady Bird received numerous awards including the Medal of Freedom in 1977. She was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984 and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center was founded by Lady Bird and her friend and fellow wildflower lover Helen Hayes in 1982. Located just outside Austin, its mission is to use “native plants to restore and create sustainable, beautiful landscapes.” The complex encompases 284 acres of land and has been known as the Botanic Garden of Texas since 2017.
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