I just learned that Lady Bird Johnson died today. In a way unlike any other First Lady, Ms. Johnson made a big impact on my life. It still amazes me how much she did for this country and how much we all owe her.
I can’t remember the first time I heard the slogan, “Keep America Beautiful.” When I was young it became part of the mantra of our nation. In some vague way I knew Lady Bird was responsible for that saying but as I grew up it didn’t seem important. Or perhaps more accurately, it didn’t seem innovative or insightful, it just seemed obvious.
One day when my son was a baby, I sat on the porch talking to my mother-in-law and her sister. As they played with Philip they reminisced about when their own children were young. One thing they said that stuck with me all these years is that driving across the southern US they had used some of the first disposable diapers. And when one got dirty, they simply tossed it out the window.
Lady Bird also fought the plague of billboards taking over American highways in the 1960s. I can remember when billboards lined nearly every road. If limiting those signs was all Lady Bird did, I would still be greatly in her debt. Removing the billboards has made traveling much more pleasant. Imagine what our highways would look like now without her work. Driving through the Hill Country would not provide rugged vistas dotted with wildflowers, it wouldn’t provide vistas at all, just advertisements.
Speaking of wildflowers, Lady Bird Johnson initiated the movement to line roadsides with wildflowers. All those people taking Easter photos of their kids in the bluebonnets have Lady Bird to thank for their photo-ops.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson spoke on highway beautification, one of Lady Bird’s signature issues, saying “a new and substantial effort must be made to landscape highways to provide places of relaxation and recreation wherever our roads run.” He was speaking about flowers and billboards but I think the sentiment should be revisited today.
Continuing Lady Bird’s efforts means striving to include beauty and recreation in all highway improvements. The road bond bill that recently failed to pass in
Lady Bird Johnson provided an example for all Americans. She was a great woman who had tremendous influence on the way this country is experienced by all of us who share in her legacy. Let’s learn from her example and keep her spirit alive not just in our words but in our actions.
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