On June 11, 2007, former First lady Lady Bird Johnson passed away.
Lady Bird Johnson.
I’ve become accustomed for so long to calling her Lady Bird like so many Americans, that even until this day, I still do not think of her actual given name, Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson. Born on a former slave plantation house on the outskirts of town, which her father had purchased shortly before her birth, her parents, both natives of Alabama, were of English and Scottish descent.
Though she was named for her mother’s brother Claud, during her infancy, her nursemaid, Alice Tittle, proclaimed her as “purty as a ladybird,” and that nickname virtually replaced her given name for the rest of her life. Her father and siblings called her Lady, though her husband called her Bird. During her teenage years, her schoolmates called her Bird, though mockingly, since she reportedly was not fond of the name.
Born on December 22, 1912, in a country mansion near Karnack, Texas, she received her nickname “Lady Bird” as a small child; and as Lady Bird she was known and loved throughout America. It seemed that name would become prophetic, as there has seldom been a First Lady so attuned to nature and the importance of conserving the environment, especially the native flora that was unique to America.
As the wife of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, she was a stalwart and steady influence in his life, during his political campaigns, during the hell of Vietnam, when she lost many children to miscarriages in the earlier years of their marriage, and when she finally became a mother, with the arrival of her two daughters, Lynda Bird (now Mrs. Charles S. Robb) in 1944 and Luci Baines (Mrs. Ian Turpin) who was born three years later. She took a highly active part in her husband’s war-on-poverty program, especially the Head Start project for preschool children.
After JFK’s murder, she entered the White House, and immediately put her own Texas stamp upon it. But, it was her conservation efforts to alert Americans to the beauty and importance of the natural plant life that America alone had. She created a First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, then expanded her program to include the entire nation. She created the National Wildflower Research Center. Throughout her life, she was an advocate for beautification of the nation’s cities and highways and conservation of natural resources. The former First Lady was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
And nowhere in her conservation efforts was it more greatly seen in her working to convince the Americans to learn to appreciate the beauty of wildflowers all across America, as people drove the highways. She sought to open people’s eyes to the splendor and magnificence of the humble native wildflower species which have been in America way before the Europeans came, way before the native First Nation people came. She sought to educate people that foreign plants, no matter how beautiful, could not compare to the lovely natural beauties that have graced this country for many millenia. Many people driving up and down the highways have never given much thought to how nature has adorned the scenery with such bright displays of vivid color, a veritable palette of orange, reds, pinks, yellows, and blues.
The delicate Evening Primrose:
The Indian Paintbrush:
And my most favourite of all, the Texas Bluebonnet:
In 1987, she persuaded Congress to pass a bill to dedicate 1/4 of 1% of each state’s highway budget to the preservation of wildflowers. Pretty soon she got many people involved, not just the average citizen, but, also , the state tranportation department, helping people see that highways were roads that passed by beauty all the time.
So, when you drive down the highway, please take the time to look at all the beautiful wildflowers that so many of us take for granted. Stop. Park your car, and get out and truly stop to smell the roses—only this time, stop to appreciate the unique beauty that is America, in its native wildflowers that are as uniquely our own as they differ from state to state.
And most of all, remember that it was Lady Bird Johnson who helped many Americans realize the lovely splashes of color that have been right before our very eyes for so long, if only because many of us had come to take for granted flowers which are found nowhere else on God’s Earth.
To this day, I cannot look at the Texas Bluebonnet without thinking of Lady Bird Johnson.
And because of that, I am sure she took some up with her soul to Heaven, and now, Heaven is just much more beautiful.
Rest in peace, Lady Bird.
( Portrait of Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Taylor (age about six months) and Alice Tittle, who nicknamed her “Lady Bird”. Credit: LBJ Library, image date, circa early 1913, Karnack, Texas.)
(First photo above, Lady Bird as an infant, with her nursemaid Ms. Alice Tittle)
(Second photo above, a portrait of Lady Bird at about age 3.)
(Third photo above, official White House portrait of Lady Bird Johnson, painted in 1968 by Elizabeth Shoumatoff.)