Recipient Biography

Lady Bird Johnson


Lady Bird Johnson (1912 - 2007) received the Pugsley Medal in 2005 "for her personal leadership in the development of the park systems in Washington D.C. and in Austin, Texas, and for the inspirational national leadership she provided to leaders in many communities across America through her outspoken and persistent advocacy which brought beautification and conservation to the forefront of the national agenda." Long before it was fashionable, she encouraged Americans to care for the place they lived in. She made green politics legitimate.


She was born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack, Texas, near the Louisiana border. Lady Bird Johnson's father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, was the prosperous owner of a large plantation, two country stores, and a cotton gin, and he described himself as "a dealer in everything." He acquired a great deal of land during the first 20 years of the twentieth century and was relatively wealthy. Her mother died when she was five-years old. After her mother's death, Lady Bird's unmarried maternal aunt, Effie Patillo, moved to Karnack from Alabama to look after her. At an early age, Claudia's nursemaid said she was "as purty as a lady bird" -- thereafter she became known to her family and friends as "Lady Bird." "I was a baby and in no position to protest," she said of her nickname.


Her interest in beauty was deeply rooted. After her mother died, in her solitude Lady Bird spent much time alone out of doors roaming the pinewoods, fields and bayous around Karnack, making a connection with nature. Her Aunt Effie encouraged it and spent much time explaining to Lady Bird how lovely the fields and meadows could be. Lady Bird's love of nature gave her a life of her own. She later reflected:



When I was a little girl, I grew up listening to the wind in the pine trees of the East Texas woods. On Caddo Lake, which was close to Karnack, I loved to paddle in the dark bayous where time itself seemed ringed around by silence and ancient cypress trees, rich in festoons of Spanish moss. Now and then an alligator would surface like a gnarled log. It was a place for dreams.



On her walks, she watched the wildflowers and "the daffodils in the yard. When the first one bloomed, I'd have a little ceremony, all by myself, and name it the queen."


She grew up in the "Brick House" in Karnack which was a two-story, ten room Southern mansion, and she attended a small rural elementary school there. When she graduated from Marshall High School in 1928 at the age of 15, her father decided she was too young for university and that she should go as a boarder for two years to St. Mary's School for Girls, an Episcopal Junior College, in Dallas from 1928 to 1930.


She entered the University of Texas in 1930 and received a BA degree in history in 1933. She stayed on to secure a journalism degree as well in 1934, because newspaper people "went more places and met more intriguing people and had more exciting things happen to them." She met Lyndon Johnson for the first time in the office of a friend in Austin in 1934, and he proposed to her the next day. They were married three months later in San Antonio. President Johnson once described her as "the brains and money of this family." She was a calm and steadying influence on her often moody and volatile husband as she quietly attended to the demands imposed by his career.


Lady Bird Johnson's role as advocate, catalyst and mediator of environmental programs became prominent when her husband became President in 1963. Her role was substantive, direct and personal, rather than cosmetic or being limited to her influence on the President. Secretary of Interior, Stuart Udall, believed that she influenced the President to demand and support far-sighted conservation and he was convinced that, "Lady Bird's pushing made her husband more receptive to conservation initiatives." Her vision, enthusiasm, and energy made an impact at local and national levels. She "provided the leadership that changed the political climate in Washington to being favorable to aesthetic considerations, through her personal involvement in a positive program."


When she became First Lady, she concluded that the issue she would focus upon was natural beauty or "beautification" because it had the capacity to "make my heart sing." In response to this commitment, Stewart Udall sent her a memorandum suggesting she make Washington D.C. "a garden city whose floral displays and plantings would make it a hadsome model for America," and she quickly embraced it. The nation's capital had attracted considerable attention for its deteriorating physical situation and mounting social problems. It was described as "a shabby city" and its transformation would, therefore, prove an excellent model for other cities. The President supported her initiative and specifically launched it in his 1965 state of the union address indicating his intent to make the Potomac River "a model of beauty."


She expressed her modus operandi in these terms: "My criteria for a project are that it receive the fullest human use -- that it be well cared for -- and a third ingredient - that the desire for it emanate from the neighborhood and the users." Gently, quietly, but with tenacious persistence, she reminded those who worked with her that these principles had to guide all of their projects.


When she first conceived "beautification" (a "prissy" word which she disliked) she found it was like "picking up a tangled skein of wool; all the threads are interwoven -- recreation and pollution and mental health, and the crime rate and rapid transit and the war on poverty, and parks -- everything leads to something else."


Her personal efforts while she was First Lady transformed the look of Washington D.C. Lady Bird Johnson did more than any other individual to change the appearance and tone of Washington D.C. in the 1960s. Driving through Washington, she imagined the weed-filled parks and triangles filled with dogwoods, azaleas, tulips and chrysanthemums, red oaks rising on Connecticut Avenue, crepe myrtles throwing shade over F Street. As first lady, starting in 1966, she filled the city with flowers.


Her Washington D.C. beautification effort had two facets. First, she worked to improve the city in areas where tourists were most prevalent and the buildings were monumental. With the assistance of philanthropic friends, especially Mary Lasker and Laurance Rockefeller (Pugsley Medal 2004) and of Nash Castro (Pugsley Medal 1969 and 1979) who was the NPS regional director in the capital region, she launched major tree and flower plantings that were a central feature of the city's revitalization. She had no dependable source of funds and no formal staff apparatus beyond what she could pull together on her own. Over $2.5 million in private funds were raised; over half a billion bulbs and over 25,000 trees were planted. Across Washington in the spring as the cherry trees blossom and the flowers appear in the parks and along the roadways the collective thought in Washington should be thanks to Lady Bird Johnson. The Lady Bird Johnson Park in Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington, is an outgrowth of her First Lady's Committee for a More Beautiful Capitol.


The second facet of her Washington D.C. work was to take beautification into the ghetto. As one of the African-American leaders who worked with her noted, her beautification program "went to the heart of filling the gap and beginning to work with the alienation" of the city's black residents. She created demonstration projects and pilot initiatives that took beautification into the neighborhoods. She recognized "all of our efforts will fail unless people in these neighborhoods can see the challenge and do the work on their own front yards." Spearheaded by Walter Washington, mayor of Washington D.C, a "clean-up, fix-up, paint-up and plant-up" campaign was launched. School grounds were especially targeted for beautification. In the big picture, the contribution of these projects was limited because they were small-scale and did not strike at the roots of Washington's racism, poverty and urban decay. However, they refuted the off-cited contention that until there was major funding to address everything; the best course was to do nothing.


At the national level, she is best known for her leadership to make highways more attractive of which the most tangible result was the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. This especially targeted the removal of billboards. It brought Lady Bird's personal commitment to roadside beauty to the legislative process. Her activities were instrumental to the Act's initial conception, its progress through Congress, and its final enactment. Its central thought was to reserve and regulate billboards, and junkyards alongside highways.


Opponents to the legislation were powerful because all politicians knew that billboards were an important aspect of modern campaigning and opposition from local operators could imperil a re-election. The opposition resulted in compromises that ultimately proved to be serious weaknesses, but at the time the initial reaction among the conservation and anti-billboard community to the act was cautiously positive. It was viewed as a promising start. The major weakness was the insertion of a "just compensation" clause. The requirement that billboard owners be compensated, rather than allow jurisdictions to use their police power of zoning to secure its goals, made it unacceptably expensive to enforce. However, without Mrs. Johnson's active lobbying, there would have been no Highway Beautification Act and it had the effect of drawing national attention to the problem of junkyards and outdoor advertising.


Throughout her period as First Lady, Mrs. Johnson quietly and tactfully supported environmentalist positions. She was such a strong advocate for expansion and improvement of the national park system that Secretary of Interior, Stuart Udall, called her "a second secretary of the interior in the White House." Among her actions, she supported the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Privately she opposed her husband's administration's efforts to construct dams in Grand Canyon, and supported its efforts to establish a Redwoods National Park in California. Having a First Lady who said that Grand Canyon should be preserved, the redwoods should not be cut down, and that parks should be saved from intrusion by freeways, meant that parks and conservation was a high visibility issue in the 1960s. She played a key role in instilling conservation and ecological ideas in the national mind.


Lady Bird first visited Austin in 1930 to look over the University of Texas. She later remarked, "I fell in love with Austin the first moment I laid eyes on it and that love has never slackened." Part of the city's appeal was its natural beauty. "There were bluebonnets with red poppies and primroses among them, I remember them like a friend." When her husband in 1935 asked her if she would like to live in Austin, it was as if he had said, she recalled, "How would you like to go to Heaven." Thus, when she returned from Washington to Austin, it was natural for her to take an interest in the beautification of that city.


This took the form of chairing the Town Lake Beautification Project along the Colorado River, which, is now Austin's signature park and the defining image of Austin in the eyes of many. In a letter to Stuart Udall she wrote; "My interest in conservation-beautification continues unabating, though now on a very little stage -- my current project is the Riverfront in Austin -- a hike and bike trail, many blooming trees (red bud, crepe myrtle, etc)." In a subsequent interview, she reported, "we spent a busy five years raising funds," and the handsome parks and extensive running trails along the river through the heart of the city, which are filled with joggers, reflect what she accomplished for Austin. When Austinites tried to have Town Lake renamed for her, however, she always declined the honor. She said, "Each time I walk along the shores of the river, I come away feeling deeply satisfied in seeing our dreams becoming a reality."  However, the day after she died, the Austin City Council voted to rename Town Lake, Lady Bird Lake.


In 1982 on her 70th birthday, she launched another Austin project, the National Wildflower Research Center, which began with her donation of $125,000 and 60 acres of land east of the city. She explained her commitment to wildflowers in these terms:



When Lyndon and I came back to Texas in 1969, I was dismayed that every place was starting to look like every place else.  The meadows and hillsides were all being replaced by highway grids and shopping malls. I wanted to try and restore some of our native habitat. We in Texas are blessed with what we have. I just want Texas to keep on looking like Texas...The wildflower center is my love. I can't control the purity of the air or solve the problem of acid rain, but the wildflower center is an effort to fill a little niche in the whole environmental picture. If we can get people to see the beauty of the native flora of their own corner of the world with caring eyes, then I'll be real happy.



The Wildflower Research Center's success led to it outgrowing the site and in 1995 it opened at a new and larger site. By that time, it had been renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; its membership was 25,000; and its visitation exceeded 100,000 per year. The center's grounds are characterized by native plants and regional architecture which combine to produce a harmonious setting. In 1988, she co-authored a best-selling book, Wildflowers Across America.


With President Johnson she gave the LBJ ranch, their home on the Pedernales River, to the nation to be operated by the National Park Service as a 438 acre National Historic Site. The ranch and Wildflower Center have become major attractions in Texas for tourists.


Another program Lady Bird initiated on her return to Austin was an annual awards ceremony, held at the LBJ ranch, to honor highway beautification programs of the Texas Highway Department. She expressed her hope that the recognition of the highway officials would encourage in others "a growing sense of the importance of the projects that save and use plant material so that we might realize the ecological benefits as well as enjoy the aesthetic results."


The little girl who paddled on Caddo Lake was transposed far from the flowers and fields of East Texas, but she never lost the sense of kinship with the land and its natural beauty that she had felt in her youth. When her opportunity came to be an advocate for parks and conservation, she seized it with dedication, commitment, and lasting results. She fulfilled her obligation "to keep the beauty of the landscape as we remember it in our youth...and to leave this splendor for our grandchildren."





Gould, Lewis L (1988) Lady Bird Johnson and the Environment. Laurence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.


Nemy, Enid (2007) Lady Bird Johnson, 94, Dies; Eased a Path to Power. New York Times. July 12.


Russell, Jan Jarboe (1994) Lady Bird looks back Texas Monthly.  December, 112 - 123