Lady Bird - Portait of a First Lady
Winding Down: 1969 to the present
Her Early YearsA Political WifeAt the EpicenterShattered DreamsWinding DownResources
Additional FeaturesWinding Down January 1969
Mrs. Johnson travels to Washington
Mrs. Johnson, joined by close family and friends, transports President Johnson's body to lie in state at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

The history of the Lady Bird Johnson Wild Flower Center.

Part V: Winding Down

When Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson moved back to Texas in 1969, she knew it would be difficult for her husband to readjust to life outside the White House. Indeed, the former president seemed to see retirement as a release from restrictions. Despite warnings from doctors, LBJ gave up his strict diet, gained 40 pounds and started smoking again.

“He felt, in these days of retirement, that it was time to enjoy life, because I think he really honestly didn't know how long life was going to be,” daughter Luci Baines Johnson recalls.

President Johnson spent much of his time touring his ranch, about 60 miles west of Austin, although he did draft a book about his White House years and oversaw plans for the his presidential library.

But Lady Bird continued to work at a frenetic pace. In 1970, an edited version of the diary she kept since becoming first lady was published. A White House Diary, offered readers insight into the historic moments and revealed how life is lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The published volume, some 800 pages, only accounted for one seventh of the 1,750,000 words that made up her daily journal.

“The full diary – many golden days that I loved living and writing about, and others that I’m afraid I made sound tedious and dull – will be in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and will in the future be available for scholars and historians to peruse, for whatever little crumbs of interest they may add to the story of our life ant times,” Lady Bird wrote in her introduction to the book. “It is, if anything, the story of a family in a unique set of circumstances at a significant point in history.”

In January of 1971, the governor of Texas appointed Lady Bird to a six-year term on The University of Texas System Board of Regents. The board, which oversaw the massive university system, became a focus for the alumna from Karnack.

Both Lady Bird and Lyndon Johnson worked steadily to build his presidential library. In May of 1972, the library opened at the University of Texas in Austin. The collection includes the President’s and First Lady’s diaries, papers and hundreds of oral histories, and rotating exhibits about President Johnson’s tenure in office and his family.

A month after the library opened, the life Lyndon Johnson had been leading since leaving the White House caught up with him. He suffered another major heart attack while visiting his daughter Lynda and her husband, Chuck Robb, in Virginia.

Although the former president survived this attack as well, doctors worried Mr. Johnson did not have long to live. The President readied his estate and his relationships for what he saw as his inevitable death. He told Lady Bird she would soon be the prettiest and richest widow in the state.

“That would make me mad, but I knew it was true,” Lady Bird told biographer Jan Jarboe Russell many years later.President Johnson had been bored by sightseeing, but after his death, Lady Bird was free to tour the world.  Credit: LBJ Library Photo

On January 22, 1973, Mrs. Johnson left the ranch to attend a meeting of the university regents. That afternoon, just before four o’clock, Lyndon Johnson collapsed. Secret Service agents rushed him to a plane and airlifted him to San Antonio.

Lady Bird hurried to his bedside, but arrived too late. Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the United States, was pronounced dead at 4:35pm. “We did not make it this time,” Lady Bird would tell key aide Tom Johnson.

The following day, Lady Bird arranged for the president’s body to lie in state at the LBJ Library in Austin. That day 32,000 people filed past the casket to offer final respects and pay homage to a towering figure from West Texas.

Two days later, LBJ was laid to rest in his family’s cemetery on the sprawling LBJ Ranch.

“The Lord knew what he was doing when he took daddy first, because I don't think daddy could have gotten along without mother,” eldest daughter Lynda Johnson Robb recalls. “I really don't think he could have lived without mother. He depended on her so much.”

Following the death of her husband, Lady Bird did not retreat into the LBJ Ranch or drop out of the public eye. She continued her work to beautify Austin as she had the nation’s capital. She traveled the world, taking great joy in the diversity of plants and people she discovered.

Lady Bird also received dozens of awards and accolades for her work. In 1977, President Gerald Ford presented Mrs. Johnson with this country's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. Mrs. Johnson received the Congressional Gold Medal from President Ronald Reagan in 1988.

But her main focus remained the indigenous beauty of America. He work lead to the formation of the National Wildflower Center on her seventieth birthday in 1982. In 1998, the center was renamed in honor of its benefactor. The 42-acre Lady Bird Wildflower Center stands as a testament to her work and continues to conduct research into the preservation of wildflowers and other native species.

Lady Bird has also focused on her family. With seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, she has spent much of her time enjoying a family life that was impossible during her hectic years with LBJ.

Although the former First Lady lives in Austin, she maintains a house on the LBJ Ranch and often visits on weekends. She still greets tourists as they wander the grounds, exhibiting the grace and gentility that have been her trademarks.

She recently told presidential historian Michael Beschloss that she feels “like a top winding down.” Hers has been a life lived in pursuit of beauty, whose imprint can be found in countless corners of a grateful nation. She quietly expanded the role of First Lady beyond that of confidant to one that includes legislative planner, working mother and successful businesswoman. An accomplished resume and grand legacy for a self-described sheltered girl from East Texas.


Production of Lady Bird had been funded in part by the generous support of The Brown Foundation, Inc., Houston; The Belo Foundation; The Marian and Speros Martel Foundation, Inc.; Mr. Ralph S. O'Connor; The Marjorie Kovler Fund; and The Ms. Foundation For Women.

Lady Bird is produced by MacNeil/Lehrer Productions and KLRU - Austin.

Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved