Lady Bird Johnson, the widow of Lyndon B. Johnson, whose tumultuous presidency often overshadowed her considerable achievements as an activist first lady and environmentalist, died yesterday at her home in Austin, Texas. She was 94.
Mrs. Johnson, who suffered a major stroke in 2002 and had been in failing health for several years, died surrounded by family and friends, including daughters Lynda Johnson Robb and Luci Baines Johnson, said family spokeswoman Elizabeth Christian.
As the wife of the 36th president, Mrs. Johnson was often portrayed by contemporaries and some historians as a meek woman who silently endured her husband's volcanic outbursts and infidelities. Yet she, perhaps more than any presidential wife since Eleanor Roosevelt, expanded the terrain of the first lady by taking a visible role in her husband's administration, most memorably in her national beautification efforts.
Her love of nature was enshrined in law when her husband signed the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. Conceived primarily to restrict junkyards and unsightly signs along U.S. highways, it was the first major legislative campaign launched by a first lady.
Although often eclipsed by protests over the Vietnam War and civil rights -- the dominant issues of President Johnson's tenure from 1963 to 1969 -- her effort to replace urban blight with flowers and trees prepared the way for the environmental movement of the 1970s.
"I think there is no legacy she would more treasure than to have helped people recognize the value in preserving and promoting our native land," Luci Johnson said in a statement shortly before her mother's death.
Mrs. Johnson also broke new ground by campaigning independently of her husband. During his 1964 presidential campaign, she undertook a courageous whistle-stop tour of the South, where his civil rights agenda was widely reviled. Two months later, President Johnson won one of the largest landslides in U.S. history. She held the Bible at his swearing-in, a precedent followed by all of her successors.
As her husband's key personal adviser throughout his career, she championed Head Start, the early childhood education program that was a major component of his War on Poverty, and she was its first national chair.
She was deeply involved in his decision to run for his first full term in 1964 as well as in his dramatic announcement four years later that he would forgo a second full term. His famous words -- "I shall not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party" -- were written by his wife.
"Among first ladies of the 20th century, Lady Bird Johnson deserves to rank with Eleanor Roosevelt as one of the significant innovators in the history of the institution," presidential historian Lewis L. Gould once wrote.
As a businesswoman, Mrs. Johnson had the foresight early in her husband's career to buy a debt-ridden Austin radio station and parlay it into a broadcast empire eventually worth millions. She was, according to biographer Jan Jarboe Russell, the only first lady to have built and sustained a fortune with her own money.
Yet Mrs. Johnson was humble in her self-assessment, telling People magazine in 2000 that her greatest feat was "anything I did to keep Lyndon in good health and a good frame of mind to work as he did."
He was a moody man prone to depression who led the nation during a period bracketed by violence -- the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the escalation of the war in Vietnam, and the slayings of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. She defined herself as her husband's "balm, sustainer and sometimes critic," who soothed tensions in a besieged White House.
"If President Johnson was the long arm," her press secretary, Liz Carpenter, later wrote, "Lady Bird Johnson's was the gentle hand."
She was born Claudia Alta Taylor on Dec. 22, 1912, in Karnack, Texas, a small, predominantly black town near the Louisiana border. Her father, Thomas Jefferson Taylor, owned a general store. Her mother, Minnie Lee Patillo Taylor, was a well-read woman who believed in a woman's right to vote and promoted the welfare of the black population. Most of Lady Bird's playmates were black.
She received her nickname from a nurse who thought she was as "purty as a lady bird." She was raised by her Aunt Effie after her mother died when Lady Bird was 5.
An excellent student, she graduated from high school at 15 and then attended a private school in Dallas. In 1933, when she was 20, she graduated in the top 10 of her class at the University of Texas in Austin and then stayed another year to earn a degree in journalism.
In 1934, a friend introduced her to Lyndon Johnson, then a 26-year-old congressional aide. True to his blunt and domineering nature, he asked her to marry him the day after they met. A few months later, she did.
Mrs. Johnson, who had never cooked a meal or swept a floor, quickly learned to become a Washington hostess.