Lady Bird Johnson Dies

The former first lady known for her environmental conservation work was 94.

July 11, 2007 — -- Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady known for her environmental conservation and landscape beautification efforts, died Wednesday. She was 94.

The widow of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, had suffered a stroke in 2002 that left her with difficulty speaking.

She is survived by her adult children, Lynda Bird Robb, wife of former Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb, Luci Baines Turpin, and seven grandchildren.

Born Claudia Alta Taylor, "Lady Bird" Johnson grew up in a country mansion in Karnack, Texas. As a child, a family nurse declared she was as "pretty as a ladybird." The nickname stuck.

Although Lady Bird Johnson lived much of her life in the shadow of one of the most powerful men of the 20th century, she played a pivotal role in some of the nation's most turbulent years.

Became First Lady After Kennedy's Assassination

Lyndon Baines Johnson became the 36th president when John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. Vice President Johnson and his wife were traveling in the motorcade through Dallas, one car behind the Kennedys.

In her 800-page book White House Diary, published in 1970 from the 1,750,000-word daily journal that detailed nearly every aspect of her and her husband's life, Johnson described the aftermath of that fateful day in Texas, the Johnson's home state, and how she tried to comfort Jackie Kennedy.

"I would have given anything to help her and there was nothing I could do to help her," Johnson said.

Johnson asked Kennedy, whose clothes were splattered with the blood of her husband, the slain president, if she could call for someone to assist her.

Johnson reported that Kennedy replied, "'I want them to see what they have done to Jack.'"

"Oh, Mrs. Kennedy," Johnson reportedly said, "You know we never even wanted to be vice president and now, dear God, it's come to this."

You can hear Lady Bird Johnson describe her thoughts and emotions on the day of Kennedy's assassination by clicking here.

The nation's new first lady did her best to ease the painful transition into the White House following the violent murder of President Kennedy.

En route to the funeral, Mrs. Johnson, again as recorded in her diary, said of the crowds filling the streets of Washington, "I wanted to cry for them and with them, but it was impossible to permit the catharsis of tears."

"I don't know why," Johnson continued, "except that one reason is perhaps the continuity of strength demands it."

You can hear Johnson's reflections on Kennedy's funeral by clicking here.

A Life of Independence and Devotion

When she was only 6 years old, Lady Bird lost her mother and was raised by her aunt. As a result, she learned to take care of herself at an early age, owning a Buick and managing a Neiman Marcus account at age 14, during some of the darkest days of the Depression.

Months after her 21st birthday, she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in art. She stayed an extra year to earn a journalism degree, planning to become a newspaper reporter.

Her plans took another direction in the late summer of 1934 when a friend introduced her to a young Congressional aide named Lyndon Johnson. He proposed to her on the first day they spent together. She declined his offer.

He continued to court her long distance from Washington, D.C., with letters and telephone calls. They wed in November 1934, just seven weeks after their first date.

Their time was largely devoted to Lyndon's political career. Lady Bird helped keep his Congressional office open during World War II when he volunteered for Naval service, and she was actively involved in the campaign for her husband's U.S. Senate seat.

LBJ once said that voters "would happily have elected her over me."

Worried about finances should his political career fail, they invested in radio station KTBC in Austin, which started a multimillion dollar media empire and made the Johnsons wealthy over time.

In 1955, it appeared that Lyndon Johnson, then the powerful Democratic leader of the Senate, might never reach the White House.

Johnson suffered a severe heart attack and Lady Bird helped to manage the staff until he could return to his post as Majority Leader.

During the Kennedy-Johnson 1960 campaign, Lady Bird was on the campaign trail non-stop, traveling 35,000 miles on behalf of the Democratic ticket.

As wife of the vice president under Kennedy, Lady Bird became an ambassador of goodwill, visiting 33 foreign countries.

As the new first lady, she established her own stamp of Southern hospitality on White House social events and built a reputation as a champion of environmental causes.

She immersed herself in efforts to beautify the capital and the nation.

"Ugliness is so grim," Johnson once said. "A little beauty can help create harmony, which will lessen tensions."

A Friend of Nature & Children

Deeply appreciative of America's natural beauty, Johnson recognized the opportunity to start a nationwide revitalization effort that involved restoring and protecting native plant habitats.

In the mid-1960s, she made headlines by planting bulbs and trees along roadsides and parkways and by calling attention to the growing crisis created by habitat and species loss.

She created the First Lady's Committee for a More Beautiful Capital and later expanded her program. Her work in Washington served as an introduction for the first major legislative campaign ever launched by a first lady - the Highway Beautification Act of 1965.

Known as "Lady Bird's Bill," it was the first milestone in a long list of accomplishments that protected the environment and had a dramatic impact on the American landscape.

Mrs. Johnson also took a highly active role in her husband's war-on-poverty program, the Great Society, notably advocating for the Head Start project for disadvantaged preschool children.

A Quiet Retirement

LBJ won his first full term in the White House in the 1964 election. His administration saw passage of major civil rights, anti-poverty, education and health-care legislation as part of the "Great Society" program.

But the escalation of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War cast a shadow over his term. With nearly 500,000 U.S. troops battling the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces in March 1968, Vietnam forced Johnson to abandon thoughts of re-election.

Lady Bird agreed, wanting to retire and live quietly. The couple moved to their L.B.J. Ranch in Texas, where they lived quietly. The former president died in 1973.

Lady Bird Johnson's love for native wildflowers inspired her to create the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982 near Austin, Texas. It was renamed in her honor in 1998.

She remained outspoken on women's rights issues, calling the equal rights amendment, "the right thing to do." She was honored with the country's highest civilian award: the Medal of Freedom in 1977, and was given the Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.