Texans mourn Lady Bird Johnson

Marilyn Tennissen Jul. 11, 2007, 4:00pm

Lady Bird Johnson, former first lady, in the Texas Hill Country.

The Lone Star State mourned the passage of a woman close to its heart July 11 with the death of the Lady Bird Johnson, the former U.S. first lady with the green thumb. She was 94.

Johnson suffered a stroke in 2002 and had recently been admitted to Seton Hospital in Austin. She died Wednesday at her Austin home of natural causes where she was surrounded by family and friends, an Associated Press article said.

"Like all Americans, but especially those of us who call Texas home, we loved Lady Bird," former President George H.W. Bush said Wednesday.

Gov. Rick Perry directed that flags be flown at half-staff in memory of Johnson.

"Lady Bird Johnson embodied all that is beautiful and good about the great state of Texas," Perry said in a press release.

Perry said her commitment to conserving the natural beauty of Texas has left its mark on the state.

"Her unflagging efforts to beautify our highways and byways are a lasting legacy, through which our state will forever bear the unmistakable signature of a genuine Texan. We are proud to have known her and, like all Texans, are the better for it," Perry said.

The daughter of a Texas rancher, Lady Bird Johnson was born Claudia Alta Taylor on Dec. 22, 1912, in the small East Texas town of Karnack. She received her nickname in infancy from a caretaker nurse who said she was as "pretty as a lady bird."

At the University of Texas, Johnson earned a bachelor's degree in arts and in journalism.

In 1934 Lady Bird met Lyndon Baines Johnson, then a Congressional secretary visiting Austin on official business. They were married in November 1934, only a few months after their first meeting.

The Texas girl then spent 34 years in Washington, D.C., as her husband climbed the political ranks from congressional secretary to U.S. representative, senator and then vice president under John F. Kennedy. She was with her husband in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, and was at his side as he took the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One.

"In one of America's darkest hours, the First Lady served our country with grace and dignity. Lady Bird's beauty and what she stood for will far outlive our generation," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement Wednesday. "Lady Bird Johnson's lasting impact on the beauty and strength of this state is unmatched."

Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson had two daughters, Lynda Bird, born in 1944, and Luci Baines, born in 1947. The couple returned to Texas after the presidency. Former President Johnson died in 1973 and Lady Bird lived for more than 30 years in and near Austin.

It was said that Lady Bird "beautified" everywhere she went, starting the Capital Beautification Project in Washington, D.C., and later promoting the Highway Beautification Act, which limited billboards and increased greenery and flower plantings on highway.

In Texas, she made sure that the state's lovely bluebonnet could be seen in glorious masses along the roadside each spring.

In 1982, the former first lady and actress Helen Hayes founded an organization to protect and preserve North America's native plants and landscapes. It was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1997 and is located in the Central Texas Hill Country. In 2006, the Center became an Organized Research Unit of the University of Texas at Austin.

"Lady Bird Johnson was one of the most beloved first ladies in our nation's history, exemplifying class, dignity, and kindness throughout her entire life. She represented the best of Texas and she set a shining example of graciousness throughout her public life," U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said in a statement on Johnson's death.

Lady Bird Johnson will be buried on July 15 next to her husband at the Johnson Family Cemetery on the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall. In addition to her two daughters, survivors include seven grandchildren, a step-grandchild, and eight great-grandchildren.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center reports that it was the former first lady's personal desire that on her passing that memorials be made to The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Endowment Fund. Visit the Center Web site at www.wildflower.org.

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