By Kaitlynn Riely
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Former first lady Lady Bird Johnson “truly was a Texas treasure,” said the bishop of Austin, Texas, where she lived at the time of her death July 11.
Johnson made beautifying the nation’s highways and public lands her legacy.
She died of natural causes at her home near Austin at the age of 94, according to The Associated Press.
Upon learning of her death, Austin Bishop Gregory M. Aymond issued a statement expressing his sadness and asking for prayers for her and her family.
“She truly was a Texas treasure,” Bishop Aymond said. “She found and spread God’s beauty in the simplicity of wildflowers and nature. In faith, we trust she is resting in comfort in the Lord’s garden.”
Paulist Father Robert Scott was at Johnson’s bedside when she died at approximately 4:15 p.m. Though Johnson was an Episcopalian, her daughter Luci Baines Johnson Turpin converted to Catholicism during her father’s presidency and knew Father Scott, a senior minister at St. Austin’s Parish in Austin and at the University of Texas Catholic Center.
Father Scott told Catholic News Service July 12 that he has known Turpin and her family for 25 years. He also knew the former first lady because she attended all her grandchildren’s first Communions, graduations and confirmations. Father Scott recalled that she hosted a confirmation retreat for an entire confirmation class at the LBJ Ranch.
Father Scott said Turpin called him in the hours before her mother’s death to be with the family and to pray with them. By the time Father Scott arrived at the house, Johnson had been in a coma for about 24 hours.
With about 13 members of her family gathered in the room, Father Scott led them through the litany of the saints. When he concluded the prayer, a nurse announced that Johnson had died.
“She died very peacefully and there seemed to be a great relief in the family when she died,” Father Scott said in a telephone interview. He then prayed that Johnson’s soul be commended to God. Johnson had suffered a stroke in 2002.
Johnson’s body was to lie in repose at the LBJ Library and Museum from 1:15 p.m. July 13 until 11 a.m. the following day. A private funeral service was scheduled for the afternoon of July 14 and she will be buried in the Johnson family cemetery, according to AP.
While she was in the White House, the first lady used her position to embark on a campaign to spruce up the nation’s public lands. She and her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, the 36th president, moved into the White House in 1963 after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Johnson finished Kennedy’s term and was re-elected to an additional term.
Lady Bird Johnson started a First Lady’s Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, which later founded the Society for a More Beautiful National Capital. As part of the group’s first effort to make Washington a model for the rest of the country, Johnson planted different types of flowers and trees around the city.
The committee used donations to plant azaleas, cherry trees, daffodils, dogwood and other plants and gave awards for neighborhood beautification efforts. Johnson’s efforts encouraged individuals and businesses to use their own time and resources to clean up their communities.
Johnson was a strong force behind the Beautification Act of 1965. The law called for control of outdoor advertising and led to the removal of certain types of signs along the nation’s interstate highway system. Shortly before her husband left office in 1969, Columbia Island in the Potomac River was renamed Lady Bird Johnson Park.
Her conservation efforts continued when the Johnsons returned to private life in Texas. She encouraged the creation of a bike and hike trail in Austin. Starting in 1969, she gave awards, in the form of personal checks, to highway districts that used native Texan plants and sceneries best. In 1982, she created the National Wildflower Research Center, which was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1997.
She received the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, from President Gerald Ford in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal from President Ronald Reagan in 1988.
Born Dec. 22, 1912, in Karnack, Texas, Claudia Alta Taylor received the nickname “Lady Bird” from a nurse who said she was “as purty as a lady bird.” Johnson, whose mother died when she was 5 and whose father was the owner of a general store, graduated from the University of Texas in 1933 with a bachelor’s degree in history. She earned a journalism degree from Texas in 1934.
She married Lyndon B. Johnson on Nov. 17, 1934. They had two daughters — Lynda Bird and Luci Baines.
Luci became a Catholic when she was 18, though her father was a member of the Disciples of Christ and her mother and sister were Episcopalians.
When she married Patrick John Nugent in 1966, she was the first daughter of a president to marry in a Catholic church. They were married at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception; it was the first wedding there. (The shrine was designated a basilica in 1990 by Pope John Paul II.)
The couple had four children, but divorced after 13 years of marriage. The marriage was annulled in 1979. She is now 60 and has been married to Canadian financier Ian Turpin since 1984. Her sister, Lynda Bird, 63, is married to Charles S. Robb, a former Virginia governor and U.S. senator.
In addition to her two daughters, Johnson is survived by seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. President Johnson died in 1973.