Throughout the early 1970s, Lady Bird turned her attention to beautifying Austin's riverfront through the Town Lake Beautification Project. Under her vigilant eye, these years resulted in the development of hiking and biking trails along the banks of the Colorado River, complete with redbud, crepe, and myrtle trees.
Realizing that strip malls, highways and convenience stores were rapidly replacing Austin's natural landscapes, Mrs. Johnson reacted in vintage Lady Bird style, she got to work. As Mrs. Johnson approached her seventieth birthday, she founded the National Wildflower Research Center. She called it her "last hurrah" and donated $125,000 and sixty acres to the cause.
Along with her old friend Helen Hayes - the late actress nicknamed the "first lady of the American theatre" - Lady Bird created the only national nonprofit organization devoted to preserving and re-introducing native wildflowers, trees, shrubs, vines and grasses in planned landscapes.
During the creation of the wildflower center, Mrs. Johnson drew on the fundraising and publicity skills so finely honed during her White House years. In May 1985 she held a star-studded gala dinner in New York, where the attending socialites combined philanthropy, environmentalism and glamour to raise $600,000 for the center.
The center flourished throughout the 1990s, eventually becoming too large for its east Austin grounds. Mrs. Johnson scouted and purchased additional property, this time southwest of Austin in the rolling, colorful Hill Country. The new center, encompassing 42 acres, opened in 1995. In 1998, the center was re-christened the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in her honor.
Director of Horticulture Denise Delaney recalls that Lady Bird once explained her reason for promoting wildflowers with one small word, "Joy". She notes Lady Bird Johnson's natural curiosity and pursuit of knowledge while walking through the center's grounds.
"She passes by blooming shrubs, grasses, and yucca, she quizzes herself to see if she knows the botanical names. She almost always gets them right. If she does not know a name, she asks. Her delight in the pursuit of knowledge is strong," Delaney said recently. "She is the most inquisitive person I have ever met; she just has to know."
Dr. Robert G. Breunig, executive director of the Center, points out that Mrs. Johnson never liked the term "beautification."
"She considered it to be cosmetic. I agree," Dr. Breunig said. "What she was really talking about was something much more profound. She talked about the beauty and the health of the land."
He stresses that although she is known for "beautifying" the nation, her work has always had as much to do with the scientific as the aesthetic.
we talk about her ideas in terms like 'biodiversity', 'restoration ecology',
'habitat conservation' and similar terms - terms that were not in common
use during her White House years. Yet, I believe that is what she was
talking about and these are the concepts we research and foster here
today," he said.
The center also gives Lady Bird another way to exercise her untiring enthusiasm for interacting with an admiring public. When visiting the center, she talks with visitors about the flowers, never refusing a photograph request. The former First Lady's relationship with the public is one characterized by courtesy and interest, according to Dr. Breunig, who says, "What has always impressed me is her unending graciousness towards our visitors."
He describes Lady Bird's visits to the center as times of great happiness, her continued interest showing that the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center has truly blossomed into the embodiment of her legacy.
"She delights in all that she sees," the director explained. "Her face just lights up at the sight of a beautiful wildflower. And the word that she uses the most as she tours the gardens is 'joy'."