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JOHNSON, CLAUDIA ALTA TAYLOR [LADY BIRD]

JOHNSON, CLAUDIA ALTA TAYLOR [LADY BIRD] (1912–2007). First Lady of the United States (1963–1969), daughter of Thomas Jefferson Taylor and Minnie (Pattillo) Taylor, Claudia Alta Taylor was born in Karnack, Texas, on December 22, 1912. Mrs. Johnson's father was a landowner and merchant in Harrison County and a self-proclaimed "dealer in everything." Minnie Pattillo Taylor died from complications in a miscarriage when Claudia was five years old. A maternal aunt, Effie Pattillo, moved to Karnack to look after young Claudia and her two older brothers, Thomas, called Tommy (1901–1959) and Antonio, called Tony (1904–1986). During Claudia's early childhood, after her mother's death, a nursemaid, Alice Tittle, said that the little girl was "as purty [sic] as a lady bird." The nickname replaced her given name for the remainder of her life. Her father and brothers called her "Lady" and her husband called her "Bird," the name she used on her marriage license in 1934. Claudia made an attempt to escape the nickname when she changed schools to attend Marshall (Texas) High School. However, the arrival of former classmates brought her nickname with them and she was called Lady Bird for the rest of her life. She graduated from Marshall High School in 1928 and attended St. Mary's Episcopal School for Girls in Dallas, Texas, from 1928 to 1930. During her time at this residential junior college, she converted to the Episcopal faith. After graduating from St. Mary's School in 1930, Lady Bird attended a summer session at the University of Alabama (her mother's home state), but she decided to visit the University of Texas at Austin with a friend. On this visit, Lady Bird prophetically was awed at the sight of a field filled with wildflowers and the wildflowers clinched her college decision. Lady Bird Taylor received a Bachelor of Arts in history with honors in 1933 and a subsequent Bachelor of Journalism, cum laude in 1934. Her goal was a career in journalism, but she also earned a teaching certificate while she studied at the University of Texas at Austin.

Lady Bird's career plans were changed forever when a mutual friend in Austin introduced her to Lyndon Baines Johnson, an aide to Congressman Richard Kleberg who represented the Fourteenth District. On their first date in October 1934 on a long drive in the country Lyndon Johnson proposed. Lady Bird initially resisted a rush to marriage, but Lyndon Johnson was prophetically persuasive, and the couple married on November 17, 1934, at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in San Antonio. Three years after their marriage, Lyndon Johnson decided to run for Congress from Austin's Tenth District and Lady Bird financed his campaign from her maternal inheritance. After his victory the Johnsons settled in Washington, D.C., and lived in suburban Virginia. Following the declaration of war in 1941 Congressman Johnson enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and Lady Bird ran the congressional office in his absence. Following the war the Johnsons experienced several miscarriages before the birth of two daughters—both born in Virginia—Lynda Johnson Robb (March 19, 1944) and Luci Johnson Turpin (July 2, 1947).

In 1943 during World War II Lady Bird purchased radio station KTBC in Austin with money from her maternal inheritance and ultimately built this investment into the LBJ Holding Company (radio and television stations) that provided the major component of the family fortune. At the same time Lyndon Johnson's political career was ascendant: election to the United States Senate in 1948, reelection to the Senate in 1956, and rising to Vice President of the United States in 1960 as John F. Kennedy's running mate. At Kennedy's request Lady Bird Johnson substituted for the pregnant Jacqueline Kennedy and appeared at 150 events in 11 states during a 71-day period in the campaign. During a political fence-mending trip to Texas, Vice President Lyndon Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson were with President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in Dallas when Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 (see KENNEDY ASSASSINATION). Two hours after the shooting Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as president aboard Air Force One with Jacqueline Kennedy and Lady Bird Johnson as witnesses.

As the new first lady, Lady Bird Johnson embarked on a capital beautification project—Society for a More Beautiful National Capital—to improve the visual appearance of Washington, D.C., with the planting of millions of flowers. At the time Lady Bird said, "Where flowers bloom, so does hope." Mrs. Johnson worked extensively with the American Association of Nurserymen to protect wildflowers and promote wildflower plantings along highways. In her initial year as first lady, Mrs. Johnson also inaugurated a series of annual Women Doers Luncheons at the White House. These gatherings continued throughout the Johnson presidency whereby women's achievements were recognized and women were urged to redouble their efforts to contribute to the public good. During President Johnson's reelection campaign in 1964 Lady Bird traveled through eight Southern states aboard her own train ("The Lady Bird Special") both to promote the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and build support for the Johnson campaign; the whistle-stop tour was the first such campaign effort by a first lady. She was instrumental in promoting the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 (nicknamed "Lady Bird's Bill") to limit billboards and plant roadside areas along the nation's highway system. Lady Bird Johnson also was an advocate of the Head Start program in the Johnson administration's Great Society domestic agenda in 1965. Head Start, arguably the most successful of the Great Society initiatives, authorized programs to help meet the needs of disadvantaged preschool children.

In 1969 the Johnsons returned to Texas at the end of her husband's term in office. She published White House Diary in 1970, which provided an intimate perspective into her activities during her husband's years as president. After former President Lyndon Johnson died of a heart attack in 1973, Lady Bird remained in the public eye, honoring her late husband and other Presidents. Mrs. Johnson turned her attention to the Austin riverfront area through her involvement in the Town Lake Beautification Project; in 2007 after her death Town Lake was renamed Lady Bird Lake to honor her efforts. In 1971 Johnson was appointed to the University of Texas System board of regents, and she served until 1978. On December 22, 1982, Mrs. Johnson and actress Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center, a nonprofit facility east of Austin. By the mid-1990s the Center relocated to a new facility southwest of Austin. In 1998 the facility was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and in 2006 the University of Texas at Austin incorporated the 279-acre center as a research arm of the university. During her lifetime she received numerous honors for her public service including the nation's highest civilian award the Medal of Freedom in 1977. She was inducted into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame in 1984, and in 1988 she received the Congressional Gold Medal.

In 1993 Lady Bird Johnson's health began to fail when she suffered a stroke and lost her vision to macular degeneration. In 1999 she was hospitalized due to a fainting episode and in 2002 she suffered a second (and more severe) stoke which left her without speech or the ability to walk unassisted. In June 2007 Lady Bird was hospitalized for six days with a low-grade fever. On July 11, 2007, she died at home of natural causes surrounded by members of her family. She was survived by her two daughters, seven grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren. When Lyndon Johnson became president, Lady Bird was asked about her role as first lady: "As a public figure, my job is to help my husband do his job." Her husband said of her: "Almost everyone has disappointed me at one time or another, but Lady Bird, never." According to the historian Lewis L. Gould, "The little girl on Caddo Lake (in Harrison Country) had come far from the flowers and fields of East Texas, but she never lost the sense of kinship with the land and its natural beauty…. When her opportunity came to be an advocate for the preservation and perpetuation of the nation's environment, she seized it with dedication, commitment, and lasting results."

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Lewis L. Gould, Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1988). Lady Bird Johnson, A White House Diary (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970; Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007). "Lady Bird Johnson, 1912–2007" (http://www.ladybirdjohnsontribute.org/biography.htm), accessed May 6, 2008. Reference Files, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin. Jan Jarboe Russell, Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson (New York: Scribner, 1999). The White House, "Claudia Taylor (Lady Bird) Johnson" (http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/firstladies/cj36.html), accessed May 6, 2008.

Neil Sapper

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Neil Sapper, "JOHNSON, CLAUDIA ALTA TAYLOR [LADY BIRD]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fjocd), accessed October 25, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on January 31, 2012. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.