Claudia Alta Taylor, whose nursemaid thought her charge “purty as a lady bird,” became one of the nation’s earliest voices for the environment and an outspoken advocate for education. “Lady Bird” Taylor grew up in Karnack, Texas, where her father owned two country stores and a cotton mill. This prosperity did not translate into an easy childhood. Her mother died when she was five. Oil lamps rather than electricity lit her house and she often recalled the time when the Taylors “finally got inside plumbing.”
Yet she thrived. Her father tutored her in business. She graduated from high school at fifteen and received two degrees from the University of Texas, one in liberal arts and the second in journalism. She later put her skills to use to help her husband’s career so effectively that he called her “the brains and the money of the family.” The Lady Bird-Lyndon partnership began in 1934, when he proposed to her on their first date. She refused. Undeterred, he wooed her incessantly. They married that November, two months after they first met. They completed their family with two daughters, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines.
She then devoted her talents to Johnson’s career. In 1937, she underwrote his first congressional campaign. In 1942, she used her inheritance to purchase a small Austin radio station, KTBC, which, under her management, expanded into a multimillion dollar enterprise. When he left the capital to serve in the Navy during World War II, she managed his congressional office and when he suffered a nearly fatal heart attack in 1955, she managed his Senate office. As the wife of the vice-president, she traveled to thirty-three countries and forty-seven American cities to promote the Kennedy- Johnson administration and her own environmental concerns. “My role,” she wrote, “was to be an extra pair of eyes and ears for Lyndon.”
As first lady, she helped the nation heal from the horror of the Kennedy assassination. She had been seated beside her husband as the motorcade wound through Dallas and stood beside him as he took the oath of office aboard Air Force One. Her courageous presence helped set the tone for Johnson’s transition to the presidency. She applied the same tact and skill to her husband’s Great Society programs as she did to soothing the feathers the often brusque Johnson ruffled. When opponents attacked his programs, she crisscrossed the nation celebrating Head Start, the Job Corps, and the War on Poverty. After Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she travelled the South on board a train, wooing segregationist Democrats. Her trip aboard the “Lady Bird Express” helped stem the tide, but also placed her life in danger.
Perhaps her greatest influence was her determination to protect the environment from exploitation of advertisers and polluters. After the Johnsons left the White House in 1969, she created the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, joined the National Parks Advisory Board, the University of Texas Board of Regents, and the Highway Beautification Board. In 1977, President Gerald Ford honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Her greatest joy, however, was spending time with her family. In July 2007, Mrs. Johnson died of natural causes at the age of ninety-four and was buried beside her husband on the Johnson Ranch in Stonewall, Texas.
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