Finding Lady Bird

Lady Bird Johnson in the bluebonnets at the Wildflower Center.

On an early summer evening in 2022, the world around me hummed with sound: the gentle roar of distant pontoon boats, the buzzing of dragonflies, and the whistles of birds up in the pine trees. Underneath it all, the waves beat against the shore of Caddo Lake, keeping an uneven rhythm. I held a recorder in my hand, fighting the temptation to swat at the mosquitoes landing on my sweat-drenched skin. I spent almost my whole life in Texas, but I’d never seen anything like this.   

Just a few months before this moment, I’d been hired by The Drag, The University of Texas’s audio production house, to work on a podcast about the life and legacy of Lady Bird Johnson, BA ’33, BJ ’34, BL ’64, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna. The podcast, set to be released in June 2023, will detail Lady Bird’s journey from a girl growing up in a tiny East Texas town to one of the nation’s most influential first ladies. This trip to her hometown of Karnack on the Louisiana border marked just one part of my year-plus project researching her life.   

Working with the LBJ Presidential Library, I began to listen to the oral history tapes Lady Bird recorded later in her life, detailing her entire life story in her own words and voice. I also interviewed many of the people who knew her best, including White House staffers, family, and friends. I traveled to the places that marked different chapters in her life, including Washington, D.C., the LBJ Ranch, and East Texas.   

Lady Bird’s mom died when she was just 5 years old, so she spent most of her childhood on her own, exploring the piney woods and bayous surrounding Caddo Lake. She graduated high school at 15 years old and headed to a private junior college in Dallas. Then, at 17, Lady Bird moved to Austin to attend The University of Texas, where she eventually graduated with two degrees: history and journalism.  

After graduation, Lady Bird moved back home to East Texas, planning to spend a year in Karnack figuring out what she wanted to do next. She thought about being a secretary, a teacher, or a reporter.   

But then a young man from the Texas Hill Country named Lyndon Baines Johnson interrupted her plans. He’d been working as a congressional aide in Washington, D.C. and met Lady Bird through a mutual friend. On their first date they met at the Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin for breakfast. Later that afternoon, while driving around the city, he asked Lady Bird to marry him.   

She didn’t give him an answer—she wanted to wait until they knew each other better.   

But then, just two and half months later, the couple eloped in San Antonio. Their marriage launched Lady Bird’s role as a political wife, one she would master as her husband moved through the ranks of American government, becoming a congressman, senator, and eventually vice president.   

Lady Bird balanced luncheons, brunches, strategizing, and socializing alongside raising her two daughters: Lynda Bird and Luci Baines.   

Then, one day in November 1963, her life suddenly changed. President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in a motorcade in Dallas. The Johnsons were just two cars behind. That afternoon, her husband was sworn in on Air Force One, and Lady Bird unexpectedly found herself in one of the nation’s most public positions.   

Lady Bird’s friend and press secretary Liz Carpenter, BJ ’42, Life Member, Distinguished Alumna, said Lady Bird sat down to decide what type of first lady she wanted to be. She knew she wanted to use her platform for change, so she looked at the things that mattered to her, starting way back in the natural world that surrounded her in East Texas.   

As first lady, Lady Bird decided she would champion environmentalism and conservation. In the 1960s, when the modern environmental movement was just a glimmer, she established her Beautification program, becoming the first lady to formally launch her own agenda.  

Her Beautification Project sought to re-examine and rebuild people’s relationship with their natural environment. She started in her adopted hometown of Washington, D.C., planting flowers throughout the capital and renovating parks and schools. Her work in the city inspired community cleanup throughout the nation. She spent two years lobbying for a Highway Beautification Act which was passed in 1965. She pushed for desegregated parks and swimming pools in Washington neighborhoods, according to Christy Carpenter, Liz Carpenter’s daughter. And she kneeled in the dirt, planting flowers with anyone who’d join her.  

When Lady Bird left the White House, she returned to the Texas Hill Country and continued her environmental commitment. She helped create Austin’s Hike and Bike Trail and clean up Town Lake, which was later renamed in her honor. And on her 70th birthday, she co-founded the first national wildflower research center—now, fittingly, called the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Her work at the center is what led to the fields of wildflowers that filled my childhood in my small hometown in North Texas.   

Before I knew anything about Lady Bird, wildflowers were our first introduction. My Texas is what it is because of her.  

But wildflowers are just one part of Lady Bird’s legacy. As I’ve listened to hours of her oral history recordings from the LBJ Presidential Library, I’ve learned about the time she ran her husband’s congressional office during World War II. The same year, she launched a media empire in Austin after she bought a radio station called KTBC, largely using her own money. I also learned about how she campaigned by herself during a landmark whistle stop train trip through the south just after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And how she spoke on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1977 National Women’s Rights Conference.   

I doubt Lady Bird imagined any of these things as a teenager when she packed her car and drove down the unpaved roads leading away from her hometown. All she knew was that she was searching—searching for something else in life. That search led her to the campus of The University of Texas, breakfast at the Driskill Hotel, and the halls of the White House. And finally, it led her back to the Texas Hill Country, covered in her beloved wildflowers every spring. 

CREDIT: Courtesy Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center


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