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Lady Bird Johnson Dies at Age 94

Associated Press | July 12, 2007
KELLEY SHANNON

AUSTIN, Texas -- A quiet woman who once turned down a class valedictorian's medal because she feared public speaking, Lady Bird Johnson found herself pulled suddenly into the public eye as first lady when her husband Lyndon B. Johnson became president amid tragedy.

When she died of natural causes at her Austin home Wednesday, at age 94, Mrs. Johnson was remembered as loving and gentle, yet strong in spirit and in her dedication to her family and her passion for nature.

"Mrs. Johnson was a true, strong Texas woman," said family friend and spokesman Neal Spelce, comparing her to historic Texas political women like Ann Richards and Barbara Jordan. "Mrs. Johnson personified that strength, but yet she did it with a very genteel, gracious, quiet, soothing exterior."

She was hospitalized with a stroke in 2002 that made speaking difficult. But she continued to make public appearances and in May attended an event at the LBJ Library and Museum.

Along with tenaciously supporting his administration, she was a champion for the environment and the preservation of native plants and wildflowers.

Despite her medical setbacks, she occasionally visited the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center she co-founded in 1982 and delighted in the wildflowers around Austin's Town Lake.

"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," she once wrote.

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 cleanup 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."

Former President Carter said he and his wife, Rosalynn, remembered her "empathy for the disadvantaged. Many people's lives are better today because she championed with enthusiasm civil rights and programs for children and the poor."

She joined in every one of her husband's campaigns and rarely lost her composure, despite heckling, grueling campaign schedules, and her fear of public speaking. 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 was her husband's chief supporter when he challenged John F. Kennedy unsuccessfully in 1960 for the Democratic presidential nomination, although she confessed privately she would rather be home in Texas.

Her husband eventually became vice president. The Johnsons were propelled into the White House with the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination of Kennedy in Dallas.

"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.

Others 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 after Kennedy's assassination, "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.

Mrs. Johnson spent 34 years in Washington while her husband held the offices of congressional secretary, U.S. representative, senator, vice president and president.

Faced with growing civil unrest and challenges from within his own Democratic Party over his Vietnam War policies, Johnson declined to seek re-election in 1968.

After leaving Washington, the former first lady 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.

The former president died in 1973, just four years after leaving office. Johnson and her daughters remained active in her wildflower advocacy and with the LBJ Library in Austin.

Born Claudia Alta Taylor in the small East Texas town of Karnack, 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."

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 of arts degree in 1933 and a bachelor 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.

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.

In addition to her two daughters, Lady Bird Johnson's survivors include seven grandchildren, a step-grandchild and several great-grandchildren.

She 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 she will be buried in the Johnson family cemetery.

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