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Remembering Lady Bird Johnson

by Pamela Leavey

Lady Bird Johnson has died at 94. The former first lady “championed conservation and worked tenaciously for the political career of her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson.” Johnson suffered a stroke in 2002, but she “still managed to make occasional public appearances and get outdoors to enjoy her beloved wildflowers.”

I have a lot on my plate today business and personal that has kept me from blogging, but I would be remiss in not noting the passing of Lady Bird, for her love for nature reminded me much of my own mother’s love for nature that instilled in me as a small child and has been passed on to my daughter. I spent 20 years before I started my business as floral designer. There’s something so vital in the concept of stopping to smell the roses and indeed, Lady Bird made certain that in Washington D.C., residents and visitors could enjoy the flowers. Rest in peace, Lady Bird. Your love for nature helped make this country a better place, as did many of things you did.

The Ann Gerhart of the WaPo has a lovely tribute to Lady Bird. Here’s some quips:

This was another Lady Bird spring we had, wasn’t it?

Confident and lush and defiantly gorgeous, this spring burst out of an ugly Washington winter in such glory because of Lady Bird Johnson. Starting after her husband became president in 1963 in the bleak days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, she commanded the plantings of millions of tulips and daffodils through the parks and triangles of Washington. Red oaks went in along Connecticut Avenue. Crepe myrtles lined up along F Street. Dogwoods. Azaleas. Forsythia. Vibernum. More and more cherry blossom trees, ringing the Washington Monument, marching into Shaw.

How could she have known how much we would come to count on her annual spring show in Washington and her wildflower stands along the interstates, more than 40 years later? Hers is a simple and steadfast legacy, unparalleled among First Ladies. She took her lifelong love affair with nature and strewed it across a huge country, where it could cheer generations of Americans without regard to class or creed or age. She sowed an explosion of color to please the loner trucker barreling down the highway and the poor child skipping past urban trash.

Claudia Taylor Johnson, who died yesterday at 94, had been so nourished herself, when, as a lonely and motherless little girl, she would search each spring for the first daffodil, so that she could name it “queen.”

“Whose spirits have not been lifted by the sight of scarlet tulips in the spring and golden chrysanthemums in the fall in a downtown square where once a neglected bench sat forlornly among wild onions!” she wrote in a guest column in The Washington Post in 1966.

Her concept and execution were vast enough that some early pundit named it “beautification,” to drape her vision with the bureaucratic jargon federal Washington so reveres. She hated the word. It sounded sissified, she always said, and she was dead serious about her cause. Other first ladies took up illiteracy and drug abuse and mental illness. Lady Bird preferred to focus on the health, instead of the pathology, of the world we inhabit. After riots erupted, she planted daffodils. Yet she carried out her vision not through garden-club fluttering but through a flurry of legislation.

Lady Bird Johnson was a real Southern charmer and a publicly demurring wife, but she also had a steely sense of politics born of decades spent alongside her husband in the Senate and as vice president. She tramped into the ghettoes and posed for photos, pumps on her feet and a shovel in her hands, but she also lobbied for the Highway Beautification Act, which pushed billboards 50 yards away from the roadsides and insisted junkyards be screened from view. It was but one of 150 environmental laws, including the landmark Clean Air Act, enacted with her vigorous support during the Johnson adminstration from 1963 to 1969. She was a patron saint to the National Park Service.

And she kept at it with energy and dignity in the nearly 35 years after her husband died. Back in Austin, she founded the National Wildflower Research Center and raised $10 million for it. She created hiking and biking paths in a revitalized downtown Austin, all projects united by a single theme: “It was something my heart could sing to,” Lady Bird once explained.

Lady Bird also “the country speaking up on Head Start and her husband’s War on Poverty,” and during “the 1964 election, she bravely embarked on a whistle-stop tour of eight southern states to sell the Civil Rights Act.”

During a four-day, 1,628-mile campaign trip, she traveled to cities and town that were in such racial turmoil it was not considered safe for Johnson to go,” wrote Jan Jarboe Russell in “Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson.”

“Her message was that the Civil War should at long last come to an end, which could only happen if the South shed its racist past and moved into the modern world.” She was booed and spit on and threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. Still, she pushed on.

Lady Bird Johnson, “created a persistent beauty, coast to coast.” Take a moment and stop to appreciate the flowers, because they are vital to the innate nature in all of us.

One Response to “Remembering Lady Bird Johnson”

  1. In the spirit of not speaking ill of the departed, I’ll refrain from mentioning the millions of dollars that she allegedly did her part to help LBJ obtain illegally.

    You get someone like Buckminister Fuller and it seems safe enough to note their passing with nothing but superlatives. People from the political arena, business world, or entertainment industry, however, are most safely thought of in terms of pros and cons.