Fri, Jul 13, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Lady Bird Johnson passes away in Texas

AP , AUSTIN, TEXAS

Lady Bird Johnson, the former first lady who championed conservation and worked tenaciously for the political career of her husband, Lyndon Johnson, died on Wednesday, a family spokeswoman said. She was 94.

Johnson, who suffered a stroke in 2002 that affected her ability to speak, returned home late last month after a week at Seton Medical Center, where she had been admitted for a low-grade fever.

She died on Wednesday afternoon at her Austin home of natural causes. Elizabeth Christian, the spokeswoman, said she was surrounded by family and friends.

Even after the stroke, Johnson still managed to make occasional public appearances and get outdoors to enjoy her beloved wildflowers. But she was unable to speak more than a few short phrases, and more recently did not speak at all, Anne Wheeler, spokeswoman for the LBJ Library and Museum, said last year. She communicated her thoughts and needs by writing, Wheeler said.

Lyndon Johnson died in 1973, four years after the Johnsons left the White House.

The longest-living first lady in history was Bess Truman, who was 97 when she died in 1982.

The daughter of a Texas rancher, she spent 34 years in Washington, as the wife of a congressional secretary, US representative, senator, vice president and president. The couple had two daughters, Lynda Bird, born in 1944, and Luci Baines, born in 1947. The couple returned to Texas after the presidency, and Lady Bird Johnson lived for more than 30 years in and near Austin.

Former Republican president George H.W. Bush once recalled that when he was a freshman Republican congressman from Texas in the 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson and the president welcomed him to Washington with kindness, despite their political differences.

He said she exemplified "the grace and the elegance and the decency and sincerity that you would hope for in the White House."

As first lady, she was perhaps best known as the determined environmentalist who wanted roadside billboards and junkyards replaced with trees and wildflowers. She raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to beautify Washington. The US$320 million Highway Beautification Bill, passed in 1965, was known as "The Lady Bird Bill," and she made speeches and lobbied Congress to win its passage.

"Had it not been for her, I think that the whole subject of the environment might not have been introduced to the public stage in just the way it was and just the time it was. So she figures mightily, I think, in the history of the country if for no other reason than that alone," Harry Middleton, the retired director of the LBJ Library and Museum, once said.

Lady Bird Johnson once turned down a class valedictorian's medal because of her fear of public speaking, but she joined in every one of her husband's campaigns. She was soft-spoken but rarely lost her composure, despite heckling and grueling campaign schedules.

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