From AP and STAFF REPORTS
AUSTIN - Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady who championed conservation and worked tenaciously for the political career of her husband, former President Lyndon B. Johnson, died Wednesday. She was 94. Surrounded by family and friends, Johnson died at her Austin home of natural causes about 4:20 p.m., said a family spokesman, Elizabeth Christian.
Lady Bird Johnson returned home late last month after a week at Seton Medical Center, where she’d been admitted for a low-grade fever.“Today, Texas lost one of its most devoted public figures and dedicated champions,” Texas Democratic Party chairman Boyd Richie said in a statement. “During her time in the White House, Lady Bird truly represented to the country the best of what Texas had to offer. She believed Texas to be a cherished treasure and worked tirelessly to ensure its vast landscape would be forever preserved.
“Because of her love and commitment, Texas is a better and more beautiful place,” Richie said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends during this difficult time.”
Former President George Bush released the following statement: “Barbara and I send our condolences to Lynda Robb and Luci Baines Johnson and to the entire Johnson family. “Like all Americans, but especially those of us who call Texas home, we loved Lady Bird,” Bush said. “Our friendship began when Barbara and I arrived in Washington in 1967, and although I was just a junior congressman from Texas - and on the other side of the political aisle - she and President Johnson made us feel very welcome. It was a friendship we would enjoy for many years to come.
“Although we did not see Lady Bird very often these last few years, we would think of her especially in the springtime when driving from Houston to College Station, Texas, where my presidential library is,” Bush said. “That is when her legacy is in its full glory, and we continue to marvel at and enjoy the bluebonnets and other wild flowers that covered the Texas countryside, indeed all of America. Lady Bird Johnson made the world beautiful in so many ways, and was beautiful to all of us who knew and loved her.”
She was hospitalized with a stroke in 2002 that made speaking difficult. But even after that she continued to make public appearances and in May attended an event at the LBJ Library and Museum featuring historian Robert Dallek.
In March, she listened from Texas through a conference call when President Bush signed legislation naming the Education Department headquarters building in Washington, D.C., after her late husband.
Bush and first lady Laura Bush remembered Mrs. Johnson as a “warm and gracious woman.”
“President Johnson once called her a woman of ‘ideals, principles, intelligence, and refinement.’ She remained so throughout their life together, and in the many years given to her afterward,” President Bush said.
The longest-living first lady in history was Bess Truman, who was 97 when she died in 1982.
Other former first ladies remembered Johnson on Wednesday as deeply devoted to her family and the environment.
“Her beautification programs benefited the entire nation. She translated her love for the land and the environment into a lifetime of achievement,” Betty Ford said.
Nancy Reagan said that when Lyndon Johnson was called upon to take the oath of office in the face of tragedy after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “he did so with his courageous wife beside him.” She said Lady Bird Johnson served the nation with honor and dignity.
“I believe above all else that Lady Bird will always be remembered as a loyal and devoted wife, a loving and caring mother and a proud and nurturing grandmother,” Reagan said.
State leaders also offered their thoughts on Johnson’s passing.
“Like every Texan, I’m saddened by the passing of Lady Bird Johnson,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a statement. “I remember Lady Bird for her graciousness, her love of Texas, her efforts to beautify our great state, and her help in healing the nation after the assassination of President Kennedy.
“Texas has lost one of its brightest stars, but her light and her legacy will live on for generations to come,” Dewhurst said.
“I was so sorry to hear about the death of Lady Bird Johnson,” House Speaker Tom Craddick said in a statement. “She was a spirited woman who was deeply devoted to her husband, her children and grandchildren. Her contributions to wildflower conservation in Texas will be cherished for generations to come.
“Nadine and I will keep the Johnson family in our thoughts and prayers during this difficult time,” Craddick said.
Born Claudia Alta Taylor, the daughter of a Texas rancher, Mrs. Johnson spent 34 years in Washington while her husband held the offices of congressional secretary, U.S. representative, senator, vice president and president.
President Johnson died in 1973, just four years after leaving the office he assumed after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in November 1963. Faced with growing civil unrest and challenges from within his own Democratic Party over his Vietnam War policies, President Johnson declined to seek re-election in 1968.
The couple had two daughters, Lynda Bird, born in 1944, and Luci Baines, born in 1947. The couple returned to Texas after the presidency, and Mrs. Johnson lived for more than 30 years in and near Austin.
“I think we all love seeing those we love loved well, and Austin has loved my mother very well. This community has been so caring,” Luci Baines Johnson said in an interview with The Associated Press in December 2001.
“People often ask me about walking in her shadow, following in the footsteps of somebody like Lady Bird Johnson,” she said. “My mother made her own unique imprint on this land.”
As first lady, she was perhaps best known as the determined environmentalist who wanted roadside billboards and junkyards replaced with trees and wildflowers. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to beautify Washington. The $320 million Highway Beautification Bill, passed in 1965, was known as “The Lady Bird Bill,” and she made speeches and lobbied Congress to win its passage.
“Every American owes her a debt of gratitude because it was her devotion to the environment that brought us the Beautification Act of 1965 and the scenic roadside development and environmental clean-up efforts that followed … ,” former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton said in a statement. The Clintons also praised her for supporting her husband’s “fights for civil rights and against poverty.”
In a statement, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said, “Lady Bird Johnson was one of the most beloved first ladies in our nation’s history, exemplifying class, dignity, and kindness throughout her entire life. She represented the best of Texas and she set a shining example of graciousness throughout her public life.
“Lady Bird has been a personal friend of mine for a long time, since I attended the University of Texas with her daughter Lynda,” Hutchison said. “Over the years I have worked to preserve the LBJ office in the Jake Pickle building in Austin and to add the Lady Bird Johnson Plaza to the LBJ Library. The groundbreaking was on Oct. 13, 2006, in Austin and we were so pleased that she was able to attend and see the plans.
“I cherished all of the time I spent with her and my thoughts and prayers are with the entire Johnson family,” she said.
Texas’ other senator, John Cornyn, also released a statement, saying, “Today, Texas mourns the loss of one of her finest citizens. A devoted wife, loving mother, successful businesswoman and a tireless public servant — Lady Bird Johnson’s distinguished legacy will be cherished for generations to come.
“She was a pioneer in defining the modern role of the first lady, offering advice, ideas and support for causes that enabled every citizen of our land,” Cornyn said. “Spurred by her love for this country and the environment, she devoted herself to preserving and enhancing our nation’s natural beauty.
“From the wildflowers that canvass the Texas countryside to the trees and rich vegetation that line our nation’s highways, Lady Bird Johnson’s imprint on our state and country will continue to live on as a source of pride for all Americans,” Cornyn said. “My prayers go out to the Johnson family as they grieve the loss of this remarkable Texan and inspiring woman.”
Harry Middleton, retired director of the LBJ Library and Museum, once credited Mrs. Johnson with putting environmental issues on the public stage in the 1960s.
“So she figures mightily, I think, in the history of the country if for no other reason than that alone,” Middleton said.
Mrs. Johnson once turned down a class valedictorian’s medal because of her fear of public speaking, but she joined in every one of her husband’s campaigns. She was soft-spoken but rarely lost her composure, despite heckling and grueling campaign schedules. She once appeared for 47 speeches in four days.
“How Lady Bird can do all the things she does without ever stubbing her toe, I’ll just never know, because I sure stub mine sometimes,” her husband once said.
Mrs. Johnson said her husband “bullied, shoved, pushed and loved me into being more outgoing, more of an achiever. I gave him comfort, tenderness and some judgment - at least I think I did.”
She had a cool head for business, turning a modest sum of money into a multimillion-dollar radio corporation in Austin that flourished under family ownership for more than a half-century. With a $17,500 inheritance from her mother, she purchased a small, faltering radio station in 1942 in Austin. The family business later expanded into television and banking.
“She was very hands-on. She literally mopped the floor, and she sold radio time,” daughter Luci Baines Johnson said of her mother’s early days in business.
When Johnson challenged Kennedy unsuccessfully in 1960 for the Democratic presidential nomination, his wife was his chief supporter, although she confessed privately she would rather be home in Texas.
His nomination as vice president on Kennedy’s ticket drew her deep into a national campaign. She stumped through 11 Southern states, mostly alone, making speeches at whistle stops in her soft drawl.
She was with her husband in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated, and was at his side as he took the presidential oath of office aboard Air Force One.
“Lady Bird Johnson was a wonderful First Lady and one of the kindest and most caring and compassionate people I’ve ever met in politics,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said in a statement Wednesday. “She was a great friend to the Kennedy family, in both good times and bad, and we cherished every moment we spent with her.”
In her book “A White House Diary,” she recalled seeing Jacqueline Kennedy with her husband’s blood still on her dress and leg. “Somehow that was one of the most poignant sights - that immaculate woman, exquisitely dressed, and caked in blood,” she wrote.
Suddenly, the unpretentious woman from Texas found herself first lady of the United States, splitting time between the White House and the Johnson family’s 13-room stone and frame house on the LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City west of Austin.
Her White House years also were filled with the turbulence of the Vietnam War era.
The first lady often would speak her fears and hopes into a tape recorder, and some of the transcripts were included in the 2001 book “Reaching for Glory, Lyndon Johnson’s Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965,” edited by historian Michael Beschloss.
“How much can they tear us down?” she wondered in 1965 as criticism of the Vietnam War worsened. “And what effect might it have on the way we appear in history?”
She quoted her husband as saying: “I can’t get out. And I can’t finish it with what I have got. And I don’t know what the hell to do.”
Mrs. Johnson served as honorary chairwoman of the national Head Start program and held a series of luncheons spotlighting women of assorted careers and professions.
Both daughters married while their father was president. Luci married Patrick Nugent, in 1966 at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. That marriage ended in divorce and she wed Canadian banker Ian Turpin in 1984. Daughter Lynda Bird married Charles Robb, later governor and U.S. senator from Virginia, in a White House wedding in 1967.
After she and her husband left Washington, Mrs. Johnson worked on “A White House Diary,” published in 1970. She also served a six-year term starting in 1971 as a University of Texas regent.
She and her daughters remained active in her wildflower advocacy and with the LBJ Library in Austin after the former president’s death in 1973. Into her 90s, Mrs. Johnson made public appearances at the library and at civic and political events, always getting a rousing reception.
President Gerald Ford appointed her to the advisory council to the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, and President Jimmy Carter named her to the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships.
Her long list of honors and medals include the country’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom, bestowed in 1977 by Ford.
She was born Dec. 22, 1912, in the small East Texas town of Karnack. Her father was Thomas Jefferson Taylor, a wealthy rancher and merchant. Her mother was the former Minnie Lee Patillo of Alabama, who loved books and music.
Mrs. Johnson received her nickname in infancy from a caretaker nurse who said she was as “pretty as a lady bird.” It was the name by which the world would come to know her. She disliked it, but said later, “I made my peace with it.”
When she was 5, her mother died, and her aunt, Effie Patillo, came to care for her and two older brothers.
She graduated from Marshall High School at age 15 and prepared for college at St. Mary's Episcopal School for Girls in Dallas. At the University of Texas in Austin she studied journalism and took enough education courses to qualify as a public school teacher. She received a bachelor’s of arts degree in 1933 and a bachelor’s of journalism in 1934.
A few weeks later, through a friend in Austin, she met Lyndon Johnson, then secretary to U.S. Rep. Richard Kleberg, a Democrat from Texas. The day after their first date, Lyndon Johnson proposed. They were married within two months, on Nov. 17, 1934, in San Antonio.
Lyndon Johnson caught the eye of Congressman Sam Rayburn of Texas, who later became the U.S. House speaker. Rayburn persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 to appoint Johnson director of the National Youth Administration for Texas.
When Rep. James Buchanan, D-Texas, died two years later, Johnson ran for the House seat. His wife borrowed $10,000 from her father to finance the campaign, and Johnson won easily.
Johnson lost a 1941 special election for the U.S. Senate, but narrowly won the seat in 1948, after he was declared the victor by just 87 votes in a Democratic primary runoff against former Gov. Coke Stevenson.
In December 1972, the Johnsons gave the LBJ Ranch house and surrounding property to the United States as a National Historic Site, retaining a life estate for themselves. The property is to transfer to the federal park service after her death.
The family's privately held broadcasting company - later overseen by Luci Baines Johnson - was sold in March 2003 to Emmis Communications of Indianapolis. Mrs. Johnson had been a director of the radio company in her later years and even attended most board meetings before her 2002 stroke.
On her 70th birthday, in 1982, she and Helen Hayes founded the National Wildflower Research Center near Austin, later renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The research and education center is dedicated to the preservation and use of wildflowers and native plants.
"I'm optimistic that the world of native plants will not only survive, but will thrive for environmental and economic reasons, and for reasons of the heart. Beauty in nature nourishes us and brings joy to the human spirit," Mrs. Johnson wrote.
In addition to her two daughters, survivors include seven grandchildren, a step-grandchild and several great-grandchildren.
Mrs. Johnson will lie in repose at the LBJ Library and Museum from 1:15 p.m. Friday until 11 a.m. Saturday. A private funeral service will be held Saturday afternoon and a ceremonial cortege will carry Mrs. Johnson to Stonewall for burial in the Johnson family cemetery.
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