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Former first lady loved wildflowers, nature

lady bird johnson, 1912—2007
Thursday, July 12, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:41 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 7, 2008
Lady Bird Johnson, in 1968, at the White House in Washington, D.C. The former first lady worked tenaciously for conservation.

AUSTIN, Texas — Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady who championed conservation and worked tenaciously for the political career of her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, died Wednesday, a family spokeswoman said. She was 94.

Johnson, who suffered a stroke in 2002 that affected her ability to speak, returned home late last month after a week at Seton Medical Center, where she’d been admitted for a low-grade fever.

She died at her Austin home of natural causes and she was surrounded by family and friends, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Christian.

Even after the stroke, Johnson still managed to make occasional public appearances and get outdoors to enjoy her beloved wildflowers. But she was unable to speak more than a few short phrases, and more recently did not speak at all, Anne Wheeler, spokeswoman for the LBJ Library and Museum, said in 2006. She communicated her thoughts and needs by writing, Wheeler said.

Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, four years after the Johnsons left the White House.

The longest-living first lady in history was Bess Truman, who was 97 when she died in 1982.

President 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.

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.

The daughter of a Texas rancher, she spent 34 years in Washington, as the wife of a congressional secretary, U.S. representative, senator, vice president and president. The couple had two daughters, Lynda Bird, born in 1944, and Luci Baines, born in 1947. The couple returned to Texas after the presidency.

“People often ask me about walking in her shadow, following in the footsteps of somebody like Lady Bird Johnson,” Luci Baines Johnson said in an interview with The Associated Press in December 2001. “My mother made her own unique imprint on this land.”

Former President George H.W. Bush once recalled that when he was a freshman Republican congressman from Texas in the 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson and the president welcomed him to Washington with kindness, despite their political differences.

He said she exemplified “the grace and the elegance and the decency and sincerity that you would hope for in the White House.”

“Like all Americans, but especially those of us who call Texas home, we loved Lady Bird,” Bush said Wednesday.

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.

“Had it not been for her, I think that the whole subject of the environment might not have been introduced to the public stage in just the way it was and just the time it was,” Harry Middleton, retired director of the LBJ Library and Museum, once said.

Lady Bird 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.

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.

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.

She was born Claudia Alta Taylor on 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.

Lady Bird 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.”


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