Lady Bird Johnson, the gracious widow of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was credited for her steadying influence on his volatile personality, died Wednesday at her home in Austin, Tex., of natural causes. She was 94.
Mrs. Johnson had been a summer visitor to the Vineyard for more than 20 years, renting the Upper Main street Vineyard Haven home owned by Charles Guggeinheim for a number of those years. She was fascinated and captivated by the Island's abundant natural beauty, an extension of her national role as an advocate for natural preservation long before the environmental movement touched the conscience of the nation. A prominent booster for parks, roadside and highway beautification, Mrs. Johnson ignited a national beautification program that among other things is responsible today for the array of flowers that blanket the nation's capital with color. She later became interested in wildflower propagation and in 1982 founded The National Wildflower Research Center in Texas.
Graceful as a meadow flower herself, on the Vineyard she took special note of the wildflowers.
"I take walks here, not as many as I used to. I come across these lovely little dappled meadows of Queen Anne's lace, and a good deal of black-eyed Susans and chicory. Chicory everywhere! Not as much butterfly weed as I'd like to see - it just sparkles with its brilliant color - and some fuzzy purple things, I don't know what they are," she told the Gazette in an interview in 1989.
In another Gazette interview in 1998 she said:
"I just have a great affection for this place. I come here with a mindset of leaving all my cares at home,"
She was thrust into her role as First Lady after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in the motorcade in Dallas, Tex. on Nov. 22, 1963. Lyndon B. Johnson was Vice President at the time.
"The way we entered the White House was pure hell, as you would remember, because the country was so shaken and so stricken and we were particularly so because it happened in our state," she told the Gazette in the 1998 interview. "A thing that hideous, you don't want to be a part of your country."
She would stay in the White House until 1969, during the start of one of the most volatile periods of American history, with the Viet Nam War under way in Southeast Asia and a social and cultural revolution under way at home.
She was born Claudia Alta Taylor on Dec. 22, 1912 in the East Texas town of Karnack, population 100. She was the youngest of three children and the only girl; in a frequently repeated story, she acquired the nickname Lady Bird after a nursemaid had declared her "purty as a lady bird."
Her father owned two country stores and a cotton gin. Her mother died when she was five and after that she was raised by an unmarried paternal aunt who moved in with the family.
"My daddy was a very strong man, a very good provider, as he was taught in those days, so I never felt that I might go hungry," she told the Gazette in the 1998 interview.
Her education began in a one-room school. She graduated from Marshall High School at the age of 15 and enrolled at the St. Mary's School for Girls, an Episcopal junior college in Dallas.
She later enrolled at the University of Texas and graduated in 1933, returning for another year to study journalism.
She met Lyndon Johnson in September of 1934 in Austin in the office of a friend and they began a whirlwind romance. They were married two months later on Nov. 17, 1934.
She helped finance her husband's first run for Congress in 1937 with a $10,000 loan taken out against a small inheritance from her mother.
Over the years she played an active role in his life as a career politician, working on his campaigns both behind the scenes and otherwise.
But the role that would become her lasting legacy was a national campaign to create parks and plant flowers. Beginning in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Johnson enlisted the support of business and arts communities to help pay for shrubs, flowers and park benches; she worked with teachers and held contests at inner city schools for students, encouraging them to paint pictures on cans, fill the cans with roadside trash. Letters went out to mayors in every state urging them to start beautification programs in their own towns, cities and neighborhoods.
Her beautification campaign still stands out today as one of the most successful ever undertaken by the wife of a U.S. President.
Even so, she consistently downplayed her own role as little more than a bit part.
"I stepped onto a moving train," she told the Gazette in the 1989 interview. "All I did was applaud, cheer, urge on. That is a strain that is deep in the heart of everyone - the love for your home town, pride in your home town and in your home region." She also said:
"In the White House years the accent was on making your home town live up to its best potential. Make the most of it. Work where you are. And we were in Washington, the capital of our nation. It just ought to be a place every American can be proud of."
When they left Washington in 1969 the Johnsons lived on the 438-acre L.B.J. ranch in central Texas, and they helped establish the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library on the campus of the University of Texas. President Johnson died of a heart attack in 1973 and is buried in the family graveyard on the ranch.
In the decades that followed Mrs. Johnson lived in Austin.
In 1982 she founded the National Wildflower Research Center and in 1998 the center was renamed for her, against her wishes. The center is devoted to research and to encouraging the planting of native wildflowers, trees and shrubs.
In 1988 she collaborated with Carlton B. Lees on the book Wildflowers Across America.
She was awarded a Congressional Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford in 1977 and a Congressional Gold Medal in 1988.
Asked by the Gazette in the 1998 interview what she perceived as the biggest threat to the environment, she said: "I'm not wise enough to know." But she added:
"Neither side is ever going to win out completely. They just have to live with the preservation of a beautiful and clean and good environment, embracing as many more people as we can."
A private family eucharist will be held at the wildflower center today for Mrs. Johnson, after which she will lie in repose at the Johnson library for public viewing.
Private funeral services are planned for tomorrow in Austin, Tex. A public funeral cortege is planned on Sunday that will transport her to the family cemetery in Stonewall. Graveside services will be private.
In the 1989 Gazette interview Lady Bird Johnson offered a message for Americans about the future of the country and its environment.
"An aroused citizenry can get almost anything done," she said.