First lady's death stirs memories of visit to home

July 15, 2007

The funeral cortege of Lady Bird Johnson will move slowly through the streets of Johnson City, Texas, this morning, entering the city via Highway 209, then following Avenue F south, past the boyhood home President Lyndon B. Johnson, turning onto Ladybird Lane, then passing the LBJ National Historical Park Visitor Center and eventually turning onto the grounds of the LBJ Ranch and the Texas White House.

This motorcade will take the first lady’s remains in an elegant oak casket to her final resting place in the family’s private cemetery. She will be buried next to her husband of 38 years. Johnson died Wednesday. She was 94.

The procession will be in my thoughts today because these are some of the same streets my husband and I traversed in the fall of 2000 when a group of newspaper editors spent an afternoon with the former first lady. We were in Texas for a board meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and our host editor, then-ASNE President Rich Oppel of the Austin American-Statesman, arranged this rare, special visit to the ranch 70 miles west of Austin.
Like so many tour groups before and after our visit, we first stopped at the visitor center in Johnson City, a place to soak up the history and pick up a few souvenirs. But then our trip got really special. As our bus turned onto the grounds of the LBJ ranch we were awed by the lush pecan and oak trees and the vast spaces of the estate. It was easy to imagine the late president and his family roaming this huge estate on foot or on horseback, or to envision, perhaps, the heads of state he hosted at the ranch.

Mrs. Johnson, who earned a degree in journalism in 1934 at the University of Texas, was living out her final years in this restful space in a house that she had shared for so many years with her husband until his death in 1973. She retained a “life estate” in the house that now will be fully turned over to the National Park Service as a permanent museum to the legacy of the 36th president.

Before her death most visitors didn’t get a chance to do anything more than ride through the grounds and wave from a bus if the first lady happened to be outside — and she often was. We were the lucky ones. We would get to sit in the garden shaded by a massive 400-year-old oak tree and talk to her about world history, politics and her husband’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. We would get to tour the private areas of their home and see some of the intimate details of their lives.

We went into the president’s bedroom, still appointed with period bedspreads and a huge telephone keypad that, no doubt, was able to ring up world leaders at any time. We roamed through his huge closet and looked inside the hat boxes; we saw his belts and ties still hanging on the hooks he probably touched a thousand times, and we looked over the rows of his Texas-style boots, still neatly lined up as if he were just out for a walk around the grounds and would be returning any minute. We went into the simple tiled bathroom inside the closet area and saw the same shaving implements the president had used.

Probably unknown to many, but not hidden to our group, was the fact that the Johnsons had separate bedrooms. Hers was just across the hall from his. It was a bit more cluttered, perhaps due to the fact that she was still living there.

One item caught my attention. I saw an ornate silver hand mirror on the dresser and it struck me that it is exactly like the one I inherited from my grandmother. I asked our guide, a longtime aide-to-camp to the first lady, about the origin of the mirror. She didn’t know but she took my business card and promised to get back to me. She did.

We went into a sitting room and we were told it was OK to relax in the big easy chair that was one of the president’s favorites. I couldn’t resist. Outside, just a few steps from the house we went inside a screened pool house. There was a long rectangular lap pool, not one of historical significance but one put there in more recent years and still used by the first lady, even into her 88th year in 2000.

After our tour, an assistant helped Mrs. Johnson, with failing eyesight but still strong in character and memory, into a vehicle for a short ride down the road to a stand of trees beside the Perdenales River. We walked and met her there for a Texas-style chuck-wagon luncheon. Group by group, we were encouraged to change tables so that every small group got to sit with the first lady and engage in conversation.

When our turn came I sat next to her. One of my questions was about the silver mirror.

“Oh, yes,” she recalled without hesitation. “That was a gift from Madame Chiang Kai Shek,” the former first lady of the Republic of China. I knew then that my look-alike mirror would be a permanent memory of our visit to the Texas White House.

A few weeks after our trip a letter came in the mail from the LBJ ranch. Sure enough, the woman who guided our tour of the house had researched the origin of the mirror on Mrs. Johnson’s dresser.

I still have the letter but I didn’t need the confirmation. I got story straight from Lady Bird Johnson.