Lady Bird Johnson photograph taken May 8, 1968. By Robert Knudsen/Courtesy LBJ Library.

You probably know that Lady Bird Johnson was champion of native wildflowers, an elegant first lady married to one of the most influential politicians in Texas history. But did you know as a girl she longed to be called by her given name, Claudia Alta? Or that she earned a driver’s license at 13 so she could drive herself to school?

A forthcoming exhibit at the LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas in Austin, Lady Bird: Beyond the Wildflowers, takes an intimate look at the lesser-known moments in the former first lady’s life. Plans for an April 3 opening of the temporary exhibit were delayed over coronavirus concerns.

The exhibit is the library’s first to span Lady Bird Johnson’s life, from childhood through her post-White House years. From school report cards to her work with the education program Head Start, the exhibit covers time she spent campaigning and advising for her husband Lyndon Baines Johnson; her life as a philanthropist and an environmental activist; and her acumen as a businesswoman.

Lady Bird Johnson at Big Bend National Park. Courtesy LBJ Library

“Lady Bird, of course, is known for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and her love of wildflowers and nature and conservation work,” exhibit curator Nikki Diller says. “That’s a huge part of this exhibit, but we don’t stop there. We think she was a pioneer in lots of ways, and we’re trying to highlight all these facets of Lady Bird that not a lot of people know.”

The exhibit includes a few favorite books from Lady Bird’s childhood, including one about opera, because her mother,  Minnie Taylor, loved opera. Lady Bird received her nickname as a baby, and in the exhibit, a letter from Minnie to Effie Pattillo, Lady Bird’s aunt, laments the fact that the child wanted to be called Claudia Alta. Visitors also can read correspondence between Lady Bird’s father, Thomas Taylor, and Effie, who helped raise the girl after Minnie died.

Lady Bird attended a one-room schoolhouse in Karnack, in northeast Texas, before going to high school in the nearby communities of Jefferson and Marshall. Visitors can see report cards from those school days, as well as diplomas from St. Mary’s College for Girls in Dallas and the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned degrees in history and journalism.

A series of love letters provides a peek into the whirlwind courtship between Lady Bird and Lyndon B. Johnson, then a congressional aide. The pair’s first date was breakfast at the Driskill Hotel in Austin in August 1934. The couple married that same November.

“He asked her to marry him after their first date,” Diller says.

There are items from Lady Bird’s Whistle Stop tour, made during her husband’s 1964 presidential campaign; flowing gowns from her White House years; and shovels and trowels used she used for plantings.

Together, the exhibit illustrates a life that’s much broader than a field of Texas wildflowers.

The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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