Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America

by Kathi Appelt; ill. Joy Fisher Hein

HarperCollins, 2005

40 pages

Have you ever noticed the wildflowers that grow along the highways in the U.S.? If you’re like me, you’ve probably assumed they’re “volunteer” plants, sprouted from seeds dropped there by animals or the wind.

Some of them probably are, but I learned this month that many aren’t. Rather, they (and the general cleanliness of our roadsides) are the result of the 1965 Highway Beautification Act, spearheaded by then-First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson.

Kathi Appelt and Joy Fisher Hein’s picture book Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How a First Lady Changed America is the story of how Johnson came to care so much about flowers and beautification–and of how that love prompted her to leave our nation better than she found it.

Lady Bird was born Claudia Alta Taylor in 1912. When she was just shy of six years old, her pregnant mother died of sepsis, and Lady Bird spent the rest of her childhood in the care of her Aunt Effie. Inspired by Effie’s gardening and her own mother’s love of wildflowers, Lady Bird developed an early passion for the beauty of the outdoors.

She met Lyndon Johnson while in college in Austin, and he was elected to Congress soon after they married. Her subsequent years in the barren, polluted landscape of Washington, D.C., were consciousness-raising. She became concerned about citizens (especially children) growing up surrounded by concrete and trash. When she unexpectedly became First Lady after Kennedy’s assassination, she decided that beautification would be a way to give the country hope and help it heal–just as the beauty of nature had helped her heal after her mother’s death.

The result was the Highway Beautification Act, called “Lady Bird’s Bill” by much of the country. Later in life, Lady Bird helped establish the National Wildflower Research Center, which provides a place for scientists and the public to study and preserve native plants.

I think the story Appelt has chosen to tell is inspiring for today’s girls for three main reasons. First, it highlights the way Lady Bird took a devastating experience and found something positive–her mother and aunt’s love of nature–in it. Then she took that love and made it her own: she honored her mother’s memory by strengthening herself and finding something new and uplifting in life.

Second, it emphasizes Lady Bird’s genuine kindness and humility, the way she used her own childhood trauma as a springboard to compassion, and her own considerable wealth and influence for the common good. Appelt’s Lady Bird seems to have had very little sense of entitlement–instead, as she once told a reporter, she was invested in “paying rent for the space I have taken up in this highly interesting world.”

Third, as best as I can determine, Appelt’s characterization of Lady Bird is right on the money. If any girl wants to dig deeper, in other words, she’s just going to find more inspiration. Not only was Lady Bird a compassionate activist and dedicated conservationist, but she was a savvy businesswoman and capable leader.

She was the wealth-builder in her marriage; aside from inheriting a considerable sum, she made millions as a radio- and TV-station owner. She bankrolled LBJ’s political campaigns and managed his Congressional office while he served in the Navy during WWII.

Later, she essentially created the role of the modern First Lady: she was the first to have her own office and dedicated employees, and the first to advocate for legislation. She is also the only First Lady to have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

All this at a time when women were rarely college-educated, had virtually no protection against workplace discrimination, and didn’t have legal standing to participate independently in certain property or business transactions. She went against the grain in a big way, but also in a compassionate and gracious way, and our nation is the better for it.

In other words, she proved that nice girls–and the people they lead–really can finish first.

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