I’m a native Texan, but until recent years, I haven’t known much about some of our most illustrious personalities. The husband of Lady Bird Johnson was a pivotal Texas figure, but it’s his wife I admire more.
Here’s why I wish I could have personally known her.
Why I Wish I Could Have Known Lady Bird Johnson
On a visit to the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, I expected to learn a lot about Lyndon Baines Johnson and the time he spent as President of the United States.
And I did. There were so many tidbits of history I had never known before.
As we meandered through the exhibits, I pondered how truly difficult that time in our nation’s history was, when this loud, boisterous Texan was called upon to lead us. I found myself wishing I had asked my parents more about how it impacted them to live through it. In addition, our time at the library made me wish I had paid a whole lot more attention in history class.
But at the end of this visit to one of Texas’ three (count ’em, three!) presidential libraries, my most prevalent thought, my biggest takeaway, was this:
It would have been wonderful to meet President Johnson, but what I really wished was that I could have known his wife.
Her name was Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson.
Maybe It Was Her Portrait
The White House Historical Association’s website maintains all the official portraits of America’s First Ladies, which you can see here.
How fascinating are the women’s faces and the angles at which they chose to be portrayed.
Every portrait is, in essence, each First Lady’s official “look,” the way she wants to be remembered after her time in the White House as the wife of the most influential man in the world.
Lady Bird Johnson’s portrait is painted by the artist Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who is best known for her unfinished portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, she’s also the third artist who was finally able to paint a depiction of President LBJ that he liked.
On that day at the LBJ Library, what drew me in for more study was the evident sense of peace and purpose portrayed in Mrs. Johnson’s eyes.
This was a woman who eagerly entered into marriage with her polar opposite personality, yet found much to enjoy in their unusual union.
Where Lyndon was a boisterous Texan with big ideas and an ego to match, Lady Bird was the more strong, silent type. Her public remarks about her husband were always supportive, her private attentions toward him, likewise.
While she embraced her destiny and gave one hundred percent of her best to every task, she also chose her words very carefully. Considering the fact that I’m a woman who speaks before she thinks from time to time (okay, a lot), I greatly respect that aspect of Lady Bird Johnson’s character.
As a first lady, Mrs. Johnson held back criticism, but was confidently forthcoming for necessary change. Self-control seems to have been her strong suit.
Lady Bird Johnson’s East Texas Roots
As I was gathering my information for this blog post, I searched the Internet to find out how many United States presidents were actually from Texas.
Furthermore, I wondered if all of those Texas presidents’ First Ladies were also native-born to the Lone Star State.
What I discovered was that Barbara Bush was born in New York, and Laura Bush was born in Midland, but Lady Bird Johnson was born just a few hours east of Dallas in Karnack, a tiny town near Caddo Lake State Park.
Of course, all three of these elegant Texas ladies have interesting personalities and phenomenal legacies.
Yet, in my mind, Lady Bird holds an additional element of intrigue.
And I just wonder if it might be because of where she’s from.
Texans are Funny About Texas
We Texans are funny about Texas.
Each of us has a favorite part, a region that perfectly fits us, or a specific town we call our home.
By the same token, most Texans will gladly tell you which part of the state they don’t really care that much for.
Those who live near the Gulf Coast might balk at the prospect of transplanting themselves up to the panhandle.
And small town Texans might enjoy vacationing in Texas’ bigger cities, but they’re often pretty quick to say they never want to actually live in one of them.
One of my friends loves, loves, loves her part of Central Texas. She calls it God’s Country. Nowhere else, in her mind, is as lovely as her little corner of the Texas world.
When I even mention East Texas, my friend visibly purses her lips and turns up her nose. There’s just something about the eastern region of our beloved state that she, well, doesn’t care much for. My friend thinks East Texas is a little too backwoodsy for her taste. Off the beaten path. Not enough reliable cell service.
I, however, love it.
There’s so much to explore in East Texas.
The lakes in this region are beautiful, the landscape is filled with piney forest, and there are plenty of small historic towns, wineries and berry farms to investigate.
However, it’s definitely different.
Just a bit other-worldly in its uniqueness.
So, who would ever think this oft-neglected part of Texas would produce such a thoughtful, educated, stylish young woman, capable of serving as First Lady to the 36th President of the whole United States?
Lady Bird’s Home
Mike and I spent a fun weekend in the area of Texas where Lady Bird grew up. We relaxed under the trees, hiked a few trails and toured Caddo Lake in a tiny metal boat.
We also wanted to find Lady Bird Johnson’s childhood home. Then as we drove past it, we realized we had just driven p-a-s-t it.
There’s no fanfare. No large parking lot out front. No souvenirs to buy and no autographed books to take home. You wouldn’t even know to glance at Lady Bird’s childhood home had you not been specifically trying to find it.
But, it is a large home with white pillars on the stone-stepped entry. It’s easy to imagine a more stately presence for this East Texas home, back in the days of Lady Bird’s growing up years.
Seeing where Lady Bird Johnson grew up only added to my fascination with, perhaps, the most influential woman to ever have come from “around here.”
We’re Very Different
To be certain, my wish that I could have known Lady Bird Johnson isn’t borne out of any suspected similarities.
On the contrary, it likely stems more from my observation of our definite differences.
Chief among them would have been our societal status and platform of influence. She had servants, enjoyed Secret Service protection, wrote historical memoirs and owned a big ranch in the Texas Hill Country.
I, on the other hand, live in a Dallas apartment and write a little ol’ blog. I do have a man who helps me with the dishes and would lay across the railroad track to protect me. But the biggest piece of Texas we’ve ever owned was two acres in Bushland.
Well….. there’s this little itsy bitsy teeny weeny thing called a MAGA hat.
(Shhhh … we’re not even going to talk about it.)
Lady Bird Johnson may have been our country’s First Lady with the greatest desire to document the days of her life and the moments of her time in the White House.
That’s plenty of common ground for an interesting friendship, if you ask me. Any woman who puts her thoughts down on paper is someone I would enjoy getting to know.
Isn’t a wonder how she ever found the time, though?
Mrs. Johnson’s book, A White House Diary, is a full account of her days in Washington, D.C, and it takes over 13 hours to read.
These are the first words of her diary entry describing the events of November 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated:
“It all began so beautifully. After a drizzle in the morning, the sun came out bright and clear. We were driving into Dallas. In the lead car were the President and Mrs. Kennedy, John and Nellie Connally, a Secret Service car full of men, and then our car with Lyndon and me and Senator Ralph Yarbrough.” (You can read the rest of that day’s events from Mrs. Johnson’s perspective here.)
What a gratitude we owe to Lady Bird for her diary.
And the Bluebonnets
I recently read an article about Lady Bird’s bluebonnets by a man who grew up throwing trash out of the family car. If they stopped for a burger, his dad instructed him to throw the smelly wrapper out the window. No one cared much about littering back then, he said. We didn’t think one thing about not doing it.
Lady Bird became the nation’s champion for prettier public spaces when her husband’s Highway Beautification Act was signed into legislation. Junkyards were cleaned up, and highway billboards were regulated. The Texas Hill Country was made especially beautiful by the planting of indigenous wildflowers along its roadways.
The President’s motivation was for the America we see from major highways to forever be a more beautiful sight. To that end, he was completely successful here in Teas.
Bluebonnets stretching for miles along any Texas road are a lovely thing to behold during the early months of spring.
Because of Mrs. Johnson’s hugely successful beautification projects, her greatest contribution to history, the thing she will be most known for throughout the pages of history, is the beauty of the bluebonnets we Texans enjoy at the beginning of every spring.
“For me, wildflowers are joy-giving. They have enriched my life and fed my soul and given beautiful memories to sustain me. Beyond their aesthetic value, there are other valued reasons for their increased use. As we experience problems with lowering water tables and increasing maintenance costs, incorporation nature’s bounty into our landscapes may provide a viable alternative in suitable areas to our concept of manicured clipped grass.” – Lady Bird Johnson letter in National Wildflower Research Center report, “The First Ten Years: 1983-1993.”
Thankful for Friends
Lady Bird Johnson and I might have agreed on many topics, but I wonder if our differences could have also formed a firm foundation for a very interesting friendship.
I’ll never know, but, goodness. I’m ever so grateful for the friends I already have.
They are, themselves, strong, interesting Texas women who speak well of their husbands, embrace their destinies with zeal and sow much beauty into their surroundings.
I bet Lady Bird would have liked them just as much as I do.
Who Would You Like to Know?
What influential or interesting Texan would you like to know?
Would it be a politician? A well-known athlete? Maybe a famous musician?
Share in the comments below.
Encouraging an everyday life, filled with intentional adventure, Texas bluebonnets, and friends with whom to share them,
PS: Here are a few other posts you might enjoy.
A Visit to the LBJ Ranch is a Must-Do Day Trip
An Anniversary Weekend in Johnson City