"Lady Bird" was a term of endearment used by a nursemaid to describe Claudia Alta Taylor. Her mother died when she was five, and an aunt helped raise her. Lady Bird Taylor graduated from the University of Texas in 1933. In 1934, she and Lyndon Baines Johnson were married and she concentrated on raising their two daughters and helping her husband's rising political career.
Long before there was a national environmental movement, Lady Bird Johnson was a conservationist. As first lady, she wanted to see junk yards and billboards removed from roadside view. As president, her husband supported her goals and worked to draft the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. President Johnson's support was controversial because no first lady had ever before directly attempted to influence members of Congress.
Though the fight was difficult, the bill passed, and President Johnson signed it into law. Many believe the enactment of highway beautification regulations would not have been possible without Lady Bird Johnson's efforts. Her other beautification projects included planting thousands of tulips and daffodils in Washington, D.C., creating a hike and bike trail along the Colorado River in Austin, and planting hundreds of flowering trees along Austin's Town Lake.
On her 70th birthday in 1982, Lady Bird Johnson founded the National Wildflower Research Center, a nonprofit organization located in Austin that is dedicated to preserving and re-establishing native plants in natural and planned landscapes.
She is the author of White House Diary, a record of her years as First Lady, and the co-author of Wildflowers Across America. She has won many awards for her support of conservation. In 1977, President Gerald Ford presented her with the country's highest award for a civilian, the Medal of Freedom. On her 80th birthday in 1992, the LBJ Foundation established the Lady Bird Johnson Conservation Award. Austin's Town Lake was renamed Lady Bird Lake in her memory in 2007.
Written by Cynthia J. Beeman
Read by Catherine Robb
Born in 1912 on the shores of Caddo Lake in the small East Texas community of Karnack, Claudia Alta Taylor attained her lifelong nickname, so the story goes, when her childhood nursemaid said she was “as purty as a lady bird.” She earned degrees in history and journalism at the University of Texas in Austin, where in 1934 she met Lyndon B. Johnson. The couple married just seven weeks after their first date, and three years later she found herself working in LBJ’s U.S. Senate campaign. She ran his congressional office during World War II while he served in the Navy, and in 1943, with an inheritance from her mother, bought a small radio station in Austin, a move that would eventually propel her into the position of CEO of a vast broadcasting enterprise.
Following John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Mrs. Johnson became First Lady upon her husband’s ascension to the presidency, and she actively supported the programs of his Great Society initiatives. Her leadership in environmental causes led to the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, nicknamed “Lady Bird’s Bill.” The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin continues her legacy. Although physically limited after suffering strokes in 1993 and 2002, she remained alert. In 2005, just two years prior to her death at age 94, using hand gestures and a scribbled note, she told a friend, “I am still greedy for life!”
“About Lady Bird Johnson,” http://ladybirdjohnson.org (Lady Bird Johnson Centennial Website); “The Environmental Legacy of Lady Bird Johnson, 1912-2007,” www.wildflower.org (Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Website).
Neil Sapper, "JOHNSON, CLAUDIA ALTA TAYLOR [LADY BIRD]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fjocd).
The Rev. Dr. Stephen W. Kinney, oral interview by and email communication with Cynthia J. Beeman, December 2013.
Biography Source Information
Biographies are reprinted from the Foundation for Women’s Resources (now Women’s Resources), Dallas, Texas. They originally appeared in "From Gutsy Mavericks to Quiet Heroes: True Tales of Texas Women," video study guide, Austin: The Foundation for Women's Resources, 1997. Death dates have been added where needed.
Audio Source Information
Our project, "Texas Women's History Moments," received the 2012 National Council on Public History Outstanding Public History Award and the American Association for State and Local History Leadership in History Award. The audio clips were broadcast on KUT radio from 2011-2016 during Women’s History Month.