Lady Bird Johnson, Former First Lady, Dead at 94

Lady Bird Johnson, seen near the White House
Lady Bird Johnson, seen near the White House

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Lady Bird Johnson is being remembered by President and Mrs. Bush as a "warm and gracious woman."  The former first lady and widow of President Lyndon Johnson died at her home in Austin, Texas, Wednesday at age 94.  A family spokeswoman says Mrs. Johnson died of natural causes, surrounded by family and friends.

Other former first ladies remembered Mrs. Johnson as deeply devoted to her family and the environment.  Betty Ford said Mrs. Johnson's "beautification programs benefited the entire nation."  Nancy Reagan said that Lady Bird Johnson served the nation with honor and dignity.

Former President George H.W. Bush said the former first lady exemplified "the grace and the elegance and the decency and sincerity that you would hope for in the White House."

Mrs. Johnson will lie in repose at the LBJ Library and Museum from Friday afternoon until Saturday.  A private funeral service will be held Saturday afternoon.

Born Claudia Alta Taylor in 1912, a nurse called her "Lady Bird."  It was nickname she hated, but it stuck.  The daughter of a successful businessman in Karnack, Texas, she grew up to be one of the country's most influential environmentalists.  After her mother died when she was five, she found comfort in the beauty of the Texas landscape.  "I knew all the trees and brooks and back country roads within walking distance of my home," said Johnson in an earlier interview.

She planned to be a newspaper reporter until she met Lyndon Baines Johnson.  She was short and shy.  He was just the opposite.  He proposed after their first date.  Ten weeks later, she said yes.

Mrs. Johnson used part of her inheritance to back her husband's first political campaign for a seat in the House, launching a long, successful Congressional career.  She documented the ups and downs in the years that followed.  When Lyndon Johnson lost the Democratic nomination for President in 1960, he was asked to join the Kennedy ticket.

And on November 22, 1963 the Vice President and his wife were in Dallas just two cars behind the president.  Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One with Jacqueline Kennedy looking on.

A year later, Mrs. Johnson became the first First Lady to campaign without her husband defending the Civil Right Act -- to its strongest opponents.  She traveled through eight states in the south, and delivered 47 speeches.

By 1965 she was on her own mission to beautify the nation. First, she focused on cleaning up the Capitol, then set her sights on the rest of the country.  While President Johnson tried to build the New Society, he ultimately lost the public's support over the escalating war in Vietnam, and decided not to seek re-election in '68.

Mrs. Johnson stood by Lyndon until the day he died of a heart attack in 1973.  She continued her environmental crusade for another three decades, and spent the last years of her life in Texas among the wildflowers she treasured.

"I got determined to save a little habitat, a little of our legacy, if I could," Johnson said in a 1997 interview.  "I had good fun working on it, good Lord have mercy, I made so many friends and enjoyed so many trips, and learned so much."

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Posted by AEB

The Associated Press and the CBS Television Network contributed to this report.