December 22 marks what would have been the 100th birthday of one of the United States’ most beloved First Ladies. Born Claudia Taylor in Karnack, Texas in 1912, she became well-known to the world as Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson and also an important figure in her own right. Passionate about the American landscape and its natural beauty, she used her time as First Lady to advocate for beautification of the American environment. She also championed early childhood education programs and served as role model for women nationwide. Here’s a look at some of the highlights of her life and the beautiful legacy she left behind.
Early Years & Life with LBJ
As a bright young girl, Claudia Taylor was nicknamed “Lady Bird” by a family nurse and the elegant name stuck. Tragically, she lost her mother in 1918 and was raised by an aunt. Lady Bird later looked back on her childhood as the time when she developed a love of reading and nature. She graduated from high school at the young age of 15 and went on to the University of Texas at Austin where she earned degrees in history and journalism.
Lady Bird met a former teacher and rising politician named Lyndon Johnson during the summer of 1934. They were married later that year and moved to Washington where Lyndon started to build his political career. By 1937, he decided to run for Congress—Lady Bird lent him $10,000 of her own money for his campaign. Lady Bird stood by his side after he was elected, helping steer his career over the course of the next two decades. She gave birth to two daughters who became the center of her personal life, Lynda Bird and Luci Baines.
In 1960, Lady Bird was extremely active on the campaign trail during the Kennedy-Johnson presidential run. Many people credited her with bringing an air of grace to the ticket, together with the very popular Jacqueline Kennedy. Lady Bird stood as a constant and comforting presence after John F. Kennedy was assassinated and her husband was sworn in as President in 1963.
When Johnson ran for re-election, they organized a cross-country train tour called the Lady Bird Special in which she made stops from Virginia to Louisiana to speak with the public about her husband’s political plans. At every step, she proved essential to his re-election.
Perserving America’s Beauty
It was after Johnson’s re-election that Lady Bird made her most significant marks on American history. She was an advocate of Head Start, an initiative that focused on early childhood education programs for the poor. Next, she took up the cause of environmental preservation. Throughout the country, Lady Bird called for “beautification” of the American landscape, mobilizing Americans to clean up their local communities, restore natural beauty to their neighborhoods and spend more time in the outdoors.
Lady Bird formed the First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital in Washington, D.C., a program which spread throughout the nation. In a bold and unprecedented move for a First Lady, she lobbied Congress to pass the Highway Beautification Act which would put limits on highway billboards and provide funds to help clean up sections of highways throughout the U.S. Though the act was actively opposed by outdoor advertisers, it was passed in 1965, paving the way for an increased dedication to natural beauty nationwide.
A Beautiful Legacy
After his term ended, the Johnsons returned to Texas where Lyndon passed away in 1973. Lady Bird continued to play an active role in the causes she cared about deeply. In 1982, she helped establish the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Texas; the center provided information about wildflowers and other native plants. It was later renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and it stands today as one of her lasting legacies.
During the 1960s, as the United States was devastated by war and divided by generational and social conflict, Lady Bird offered practical and steady support for the natural landscape and the power of education. She saw the environment as a unifying point for people everywhere, “The environment is where we meet; where we all have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share. It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become.” She passed away in 2007, at the age of 94. To this day, Lady Bird’s mission remains active in American society, inspiring new generations to save and preserve the landscape for the future.