The Fruits – and Flowers – of a Labor of Love

Just two months ago, I drove from Colorado to Texas. In a truck loaded with my son's worldly possessions, I was enjoying the trip into Austin with some good music and the feeling of freedom that comes only from a rolled-down window on the open road. A few hours shy of my destination, the drive took a stunningly beautiful and emotional turn.

I was traveling through central Texas nearly 80 years later than the first visit to this area by a young woman named Claudia Alta Taylor. As she flew into Austin in 1930, what captured Claudia was the same thing that grabbed my attention: the flowers.

Miss Taylor was awed by the sight of a field covered with bluebonnets. I, however, was too late for this year's spectacular showing of the famous Texas state flower. Rather, I choked back the tears as I drove through mile after mile after mile of abundant wildflowers in gold, red, purple, pink, orange, indigo - not only because of their beauty, but because I knew that these flowers were the direct result of Miss Taylor's inspiration, seeded by the view from that airplane window so many years ago.

The 17-year-old had come to Austin to enroll at the University of Texas. A few years later, Claudia had a breakfast date at Austin's historic Driskill Hotel with a young U.S. Congressional aide. Her suitor proposed marriage on the first date, and the young woman who was claimed "purty as a ladybird" by her childhood nurse married the political up-and-comer Lyndon Johnson in the fall of 1934. The rest, as they say, is history.

As I traveled through Texas Hill Country - the place Lady Bird Johnson would call home for the remainder of her 94 years - I was genuinely seized by the wonder that this incomparable landscape was the direct result of one woman's quest to make America beautiful, to create and conserve a natural wonder as simple as the wildflower. That 40 years after her work, there could be such a dramatic visual display, ever there because of her. She had truly worked as God's right-hand woman.

Lady Bird Johnson believed, "Where flowers bloom, so does hope." Nicknamed the Johnny Appleseed of Wildflowers, she spent a lifetime planting and encouraging others to do the same. As America's First Lady, she had planted millions of flowers in Washington, D.C. in an effort to clean up the city. The 1965 Highway Beautification Act - often termed Lady Bird's Bill because of her stalwart promotional efforts - helped to steer America's roadways in a manner that continues today, controlling billboards and junkyards while encouraging scenic enhancement.

A great deal of Lady Bird's time in the 1970s was devoted to improving downtown Austin's riverfront and - one year ago this week, after years of protest by Mrs. Johnson - Austin's Town Lake was renamed Lady Bird Lake to posthumously honor its most famous volunteer.

When President Gerald Ford presented Claudia Taylor Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, he said, "Her leadership has transformed the American landscape and preserved its natural beauty as a national treasure." For her work as a conservation activist, a 1982 poll of historians ranked her third only to Abigail Adams and Eleanor Roosevelt as our country's most influential and important First Lady. It is unlikely that there is a case for a First Lady since having come close to her impact.

"I believe that one of the great problems for us as individuals is the depression and the tension resulting from existence in a world which is increasingly less pleasing to the eye," said Mrs. Johnson, a life-long lover of natural beauty and particularly flowers. This was not a love she kept to herself, but one that she put to work - for the betterment and enjoyment of a people, a nation, several generations.

We are not all as well positioned as was First Lady Bird Johnson. But this doesn't lessen, in any way, our ability to make a lasting impact, contribute to a people, offer hope in its many varieties.

Lady Bird's story provides inspiration that anyone - including a Depression-era, small-town Texas girl who let her high school grades slip so she wouldn't have to give her class' valedictorian address - can make a genuine difference. Large or small, the effect of one life matters.

Grow where you are planted.

Strong Leaders / Strong Stories

Strong leaders have strong stories, and a solid sense of "self" as a leader.  But too often, even strong women view themselves or are perceived as being very good at "getting things done," but not as valuable strategic resources. What can you do to change this?  Find Out More Here