Forty years ago, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library became the first on a college campus, despite heavy protests. How an institution born in controversy became one of UT’s gems—and how it’s about to shine even more.
Veterans, hippies, yippies, and witches—the dedication of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidential library brought out an angry cast of characters. In 1971, fury over Vietnam was still high, not least on a campus that had hosted huge anti-war demonstrations.
The imposing stone building was marred by obscene graffiti. “Yippie” Youth International Party members came out in force and faced arrest. Protesters even got the library closed one afternoon.
A group of self-proclaimed witches even said they had gathered at the library days before its dedication to put a hex on the building. The hate only intensified from there.
Students, faculty, and administrators had to wonder: was this 150,000-square-foot, $18.6 million tribute to an often-embattled president good for The University of Texas?
The library’s location at UT had been in the works for years. Not long after LBJ’s inauguration, then-UT chancellor Harry Ransom and fellow University leaders visited the Johnsons at the White House, former LBJ speechwriter Harry Middleton says.
If Johnson would place his library at UT, they offered, UT would establish a school of public affairs in his name. “It took a very, very short time for President and Mrs. Johnson to agree,” Middleton says.
Johnson was a graduate of Southwest Texas State Teachers College, not UT. But Lady Bird Johnson, BJ ’33, BA ’34, had double University of Texas degrees. Her husband appreciated that. When the couple bought the first in their series of radio and TV stations, daughter Luci Johnson says, her mother was nervous about running them. “Bird,” Lyndon boomed, “anyone with two degrees from The University of Texas can do anything.”
Her father also chose to place his library at UT for practical reasons, Luci says. The library would sit catty-corner from Texas Memorial Stadium, where Coach Darrell K Royal’s teams drew tens of thousands. “My mother and daddy knew darn well that the people of Central Texas, lots of ’em, were right there,” Luci says. “We could be where the masses passed.”
So UT it would be. Cartoons poked fun at the Johnson “Shrine, Temple & Museum” and depicted the former president as trying to build his own sphinx. But at the dedication on May 22, 1971, Johnson promised the library wouldn’t be all glory. Instead, it would open the presidency to public examination and scholarly debate.
“So it’s all here,” he said, “the story of our time with the bark off. This library will show the facts, not just the joy and triumphs, but the sorrow and failures, too.”
Middleton was chosen to direct the library, which he did for 31 years. His marching orders from Johnson were clear, he remembers: “He said, ‘We’re not very popular here, and your mission is going to be to get us integrated on this campus.’”
Middleton started with an education symposium. Faculty members were carefully asked to help plan conferences and other public events. Different supporting groups, like a Faculty Advisory Committee, were formed. Within a few years, the library had become a major player among the many University colleges, schools, and units.
By 1979, the library had brought its 5 millionth visitor to the Forty Acres. But it wasn’t just the quantity of visitors that was significant—it was the quality. Presidents, prime ministers, journalists, and justices were among those who came to speak regularly.
Willie Nelson and Nelson Rockefeller once visited at the same time, the singer in macramé suspenders and the businessman in a pinstriped suit. Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip came too.
After Middleton retired, emeritus English professor Betty Sue Flowers, BA ’69, MA ’70, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, directed the museum from 2001-09. The march of high-profile visitors just kept coming.
The decades had proven the library to be beneficial to UT. “I think the library has been a big, big boon to the University, but the University has been a big, big boon to the library,” Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation chair Larry Temple, BBA ’57, LLB ’59, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, says. “It’s a wide two-way street.”
Diamond rings must be polished, and even their stones reset, over time. Museums are similar. In the past decade or two, museum presentations have become dramatically more interactive. With its old-fashioned placards and encased artifacts, Lyndon Johnson’s library was due for change.
A project as major as a museum redesign takes ample energy and money. When he came on board after Flowers left in 2009, new director Mark Updegrove brought an appetite for big changes. The LBJ Foundation had already talked about a redesign. When leaders discussed it with Updegrove, a forward-thinking former media executive, “that wasn’t a long conversation,” he says. “We were of the same mind that we needed to get started.”
They chose the D.C. firm of Gallagher and Associates, which had recently redesigned the Reagan library. Then there was money: the project would take $10 million. The LBJ Foundation has raised about $7 million so far, Temple says. It will continue to fundraise, but charging admission—something virtually every other presidential library now does—will help, too. About 150,000 visitors are expected in 2013.
Those visitors will get a bundle for their $8: a downloadable app, interactive tables, and the chance to make decisions about what they would have done, given the president’s information, at key points in the Vietnam War. They even get to laugh: the life-size, joke-telling animatronic LBJ has been given a fresh look and moved to a new exhibit on presidential humor.
Most impressive of all will be the chance to hear dozens of previously unavailable phone recordings from Johnson’s presidency. From conversations with Martin Luther King Jr. to Robert McNamara to his wife, listeners can hear exactly what the world leader was thinking about civil rights, Vietnam, the Great Society, and virtually every other issue of the day. “They’re the crown jewel of our archives,” Updegrove says.
To keep the new exhibits honest, presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro, Michael Beschloss, and Robert Dallek lent their expertise, sharing historical context in short videos. Dallek, whose second volume on LBJ was titled Flawed Giant, expects the resulting exhibit will acknowledge a major leader’s strengths and flaws. “It’s going to be an unvarnished, candid look at what the man’s presidency was about,” Dallek says.
With the renovation, the relationship between The University of Texas and one of its institutions is being repolished. To continue being valued, the library and its exhibits must still be honest and open to examination, study, and debate.
Updegrove is confident that tradition of openness will continue. “’Come let us reason together,’” he says, quoting a favorite Bible verse of Johnson’s. “LBJ wanted this to be a place that welcomed people at all points on the political spectrum. That spirit still prevails.”
Amy Rinn Price:
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