Saturday marks the centennial of Lady Bird Johnson’s birth. Born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack (East Texas) on December 22, 1912, Mrs. Johnson died July 11, 2007, having led an extraordinary life. Young Lady Bird attended UT Austin, and graduated in 1933 with a Bachelor of Arts in History and in 1934, with a Bachelor of Journalism with honors.
Her hard work pointed toward a career in journalism, but Lady Bird was introduced to a young aide to Congressman Richard Klegberg, Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson proposed marriage on their first date. Lady Bird wanted time to consider such a decision, but Lyndon persisted until, ten weeks later, she accepted. They were married in San Antonio on November 17, 1934.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Johnson became an independently successful businesswoman. In 1943, Lady Bird purchased a failing Austin radio station with $17,500 she had inherited from her mother. This savvy young Texas investor then sold advertising, cleaned the floors and hired employees. Her hard work paid off. Eventually her struggling venture grew to provide AM and FM radio and television stations all using call letters KTBC. Later, her family expanded these holdings to include radio stations in Corpus Christi and Waco and a cable TV. Mrs. Johnson stayed actively involved in the LBJ Holding Company well into her eighties. Her initial investment grew to more than $150 million for the company. She was the first President’s wife to become a millionaire in her own right.
A capable manager with a tireless work ethic, Lady Bird raised two daughters, and made it a point to become personally involved in the social change policies that her husband promoted. Mrs. Johnson was an early champion of conservation. She inspired enactment of the Beautification Act of 1965 – a bill her husband called a “gift” to his wife. Its passage ensured environmentalism as a top U.S. priority, even today. You can see Lady Bird’s influence in the revitalized park lands in Washington, DC, splashes of wildflowers along interstate highways, in Austin’s beautiful Town Lake and another of her notable legacies: The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, now part of the University of Texas. The Center displays more than 700 plant species, and is a site for advanced botany studies.
On Friday, November 30, the Wildflower Center hosted a stamp dedication ceremony. Mrs. Johnson’s daughters, Luci Baines Johnson and Lynda Johnson Robb, assisted U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors Chairman Thurgood Marshall, Jr. to publicly unveil the stamp. Shirley James, the former first lady’s executive assistant from 1991 until Mrs. Johnson’s death in 2007 was recognized for getting support for the stamp. Lynda Johnson Robb acknowledged the strong bi-partisan support the Texas congressional delegation provided for the stamp. Letters supporting a stamp for Lady Bird came from Texas lawmakers and the living former first ladies. Originally not on the schedule for 2012 stamp releases, the Postal Service announced the souvenir sheet in August. (Mrs. Johnson was eligible to appear on a postage stamp because the Postal Service recently changed the longstanding rule prohibiting anyone except presidents from appearing on a stamp for ten years after their death.)
“Lady Bird Johnson changed the face of America – literally,” said Chairman Marshall. “She believed we had a responsibility to our environment to restore what had been damaged – and to remember what had been neglected. That’s why she led campaigns to clean up our cities and urged more Americans to visit national parks.”
Lady Bird’s daughters and their husbands, six granddaughters, one grandson and ten great-grandchildren attended the 2012 ceremony, as well as former staffers and friends. Mrs. Johnson touched many lives through her business, public service and philanthropic ventures. She received Secret Service protection for 44 years – longer than any other individual in history. Lynda Johnson Robb spoke about how her mother enjoyed using the mail to communicate. “How many of you here today saved a handwritten note you received from my mother?” she asked. Dozens of hands sprang up in the hall.
The Lady Bird Johnson souvenir sheet has six “forever” stamps. One uses her official 1968 White House portrait, by Elizabeth Shoumatoff. The other five use images of 1960s stamps which commemorated efforts to beautify the Nation. Four of these stamps were released at the White House January 16, 1969. Mrs. Johnson, along with then-Postmaster General (and Texan) W. Marvin Watson, dedicated the original, colorful six-cent First-Class commemorative stamps. Those engraved stamps featured art by Walter D. Richards. The center stamp image of the five depicts cherry tree limbs in bloom with the Jefferson Memorial in the background. Gyo Fujikawa was the artist for the original five-cent denominated stamp. Paloma Alcalá adapted the classic stamps for offset lithography printing. Also included on the five-and-a-half by six-and-a-half inch stamp sheets is a quote from the former first lady and a black-and-white image of Mrs. Johnson taken from a 1963 family photograph by Yoichi Okamoto. The back of the souvenir sheet features several paragraphs recounting some of Lady Bird Johnson’s accomplishments. Most stamps take years from approval to release because the Postal Service commissions original artwork. The use of the official White House portrait, and the ability to retrieve images of the 1960s stamps from archives, enabled a swift turnaround for this souvenir stamp sheet.
Forever stamps are non-denominated stamps. Instead of a monetary value, these stamps are designated “Forever,” meaning they will always be equal in value to the current First-Class Mail one-ounce rate whenever they are used. For the Lady Bird Johnson centennial stamps, this is significant because new First-Class Mail rates go into effect January 27, 2013. Both letters and post cards will go up one penny, to 46 and 33 cents, respectively. If one purchases a Lady Bird Johnson souvenir sheet now at 2.70 (six stamps at .45 each), they can be used after January 27 to mail six letters at 46 cents. Proud Texans can thereby realize a two percent return-on-investment in just over one month! Collectors will want to hold on to these beautiful stamps sheets, however, and their reasonable price make them great last-minute holiday presents for anyone. One could present them in a small frame for saving or in a glassine envelope so that young history students can use them as a springboard for research.
Karnes City Postmaster Jimmy Loya reported, “These are selling out fast. I am ordering more, and hope to keep some in stock. Customers can also call, or use the website to order.” Online, go to usps.com/shop, or call 800-782-6724 and request a free catalog.
For those looking to observe the first lady’s centennial, there is an event Saturday. Following a $10 million redesign, the LBJ Presidential Library on the UT Austin campus will have a grand reopening on Lady Bird’s birthday. The ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Library, 2313 Red River St., is open to the public, and the library will offer live music, birthday cake, book signings and tours. Free parking is in Lot 38 near the library, but the Library – after more than four decades of free admission, will be charging admission upon the grand reopening. Library officials note that Martin Luther King Day, Presidents Day, Explore UT Day, Memorial Day, July Fourth, Veterans Day, Austin Museum Day and August 27 (Lyndon B. Johnson’s birthday) will continue to be free admission days. For more information, contact 512-721-0200 or lbjlibrary.org.