How Lady Bird Johnson’s Love of Nature Shaped Austin
The legacy of the former first lady lives on in some of the city’s most beautiful places.
Lady Bird Johnson came a long way from the tiny East Texas town of Karnack in her 94 years. But nowhere, not even the White House, meant as much to her as Austin.
Born Claudia Alta Taylor in 1912, Lady Bird enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin in 1930. Passionate about flowers and the outdoors from a young age, legend has it that Lady Bird fell in love with the Capital City the moment she spotted a field of bluebonnets as her plane landed.
"She had never seen so many bluebonnets in one space before, and it was the sight of the field of flowers set against the brushy range that made her want to move to Austin," writes Jan Jarboe Russell in Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson. "'It was as though the gates of the world flung open for me,' she said. 'I felt in in love with life itself.'"
It was in Austin that she met her future husband and 36th president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Even when politics took them east, they maintained a home there.
Lady Bird famously used her time as First Lady to launch the Highway Beautification Act in 1965, which encouraged protecting the environment and, like its name suggests, making America’s roadways beautiful.
"The environment is where we all meet, where we have a mutual interest; it is the one thing all of us share," she said in a 1967 speech. "It is not only a mirror of ourselves, but a focusing lens on what we can become."
After her husband left the White House in 1969, Lady Bird made it her mission to improve her beloved Austin, starting with Town Lake. She spearheaded efforts to make it more attractive with lush greenery, flowering plants, a gazebo and a fountain. A popular recreation spot to this day, it was renamed Lady Bird Lake after her death in 2007.
In 1982, Lady Bird and actress Helen Hayes teamed up to establish the National Wildlife Research Center in Southwest Austin. Now known as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the center is a tourist destination and event space devoted to preserving native plants, with nearly 900 species represented across its 284 acres.
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“Beautification is far more than a matter of cosmetics,” Lady Bird said in 1968. “For me, it describes the whole effort to bring the natural world and the man-made world into harmony; to bring order, usefulness—delight—to our whole environment, and that of course only begins with trees and flowers and landscaping.”