NEW YORK — As a girl, Lady Bird Johnson was so shy that she intentionally dropped to third in her high school class so she wouldn’t have to give a graduation speech. By the time she became first lady of the United States a quarter-century later, she had became a force of nature, and a force for nature.
When you zip down the Interstate, you may not notice that it is lined with wildflowers. That was Lady Bird Johnson’s idea.
When you visit Washington, you find azaleas, cherry trees, daffodils, dogwood and scores of other plants burnishing the monuments and government edifices. That, too, was the work of Lady Bird Johnson.
Lady Bird Johnson, the widow of President Lyndon Johnson who died Wednesday at 94, was one of the most influential first ladies in the nation’s history, and she leveraged that influence for nearly a half-century to protect and preserve America’s natural beauty.
‘Look around you’
She was green before green was cool.
In a public service announcement for Keep America Beautiful, the nonprofit national organization with which she was closely associated for the last 40 years of her life, Johnson stated the issue simply and directly:
“Ours is a blessed and beautiful land. But much of it has been tarnished. What can you do? Look around you: at the littered roadside; at the polluted stream; the decayed city center. We need urgently to restore the beauty of our land.”
As first lady, Johnson was so closely identified with the effort to clean up America’s littered and industrial developed highways that the Beautification Act of 1965 is still known as “Lady Bird’s bill.”
But her interests ranged far beyond the Interstate system. Historians credit Lady Bird Johnson with inspiring numerous legislative initiatives to protect the environment, including the Wilderness Act of 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Program and many additions to the National Park system.
“She took it to a national level by impacting over 200 legislative initiatives,” said Holly Shimizu, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden. “She helped to save many parks. She started the Lady Bird Wildflower Center down in Texas.”
50 pens for 50 laws
In 1964, shortly after her husband became president upon the assassination of President John Kennedy, Johnson created the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, saying Washington should be a model for the nation. She planted the first pansies on the National Mall.
“We are talking really about one of the most fateful questions of the time, whether the physical setting of American life will be pleasant or squalid,” she once said.Video: Lady Bird's legacy
Johnson’s signature tactic was to show up, reporters and cameras in tow, at sites she considered exemplary. Her visits brought renewed attention to such national treasures as Virginia’s historic battlefields, Big Bend National Park and the California Redwoods.
Although biographies of both reveal that President Johnson frequently condescended to (and occasionally bullied) his wife, on issues of the environment, he knew she was right.
Almost exactly 39 years ago, in July 1968, he presented Lady Bird Johnson with 50 pens used to sign 50 conservation laws. And there was a plaque, which read: “To Lady Bird, who has inspired me and millions of Americans to try to preserve our land and beautify our nation. With love from Lyndon.”
“I don’t mess in her business,” the president once said. “I’m kind of like Mr. Roosevelt. I let her do what she wants to. She’s interested in this field; I’m very happy that she is.”
Taking a stand
History records that the first lady disliked the word “beautification,” thinking it “prissy,” but she embraced it as an unobjectionable name for a cause that, in the 1960s, was far more controversial than it is today.
“She understood its deeper implications and the impact it can have on our lives and our communities and the quality of life that it gives us,” said G. Ray Empson, president of Keep America Beautiful.
In 1966, as he looked around the city he had governed for so long, Lyndon Johnson summarized his wife’s environmental accomplishments this way:
“There are flowers and trees and beautiful things all through this capital city this year that seem to nod when she goes by.”
Anne Thompson is NBC News’ chief environmental correspondent. Alex Johnson of MSNBC.com contributed to this report.