If a person’s character can be glimpsed in an instant with the smallest of gestures, some attendees at a Dallas Arboretum event recognizing Luci Baines Johnson were treated to a revelation about the guest of honor on Tuesday, October 26. It happened midway through an outdoor reception for Luci — the daughter of former President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson — in the Arboretum’s Entry Plaza.
A partygoer standing near Luci, it seems, lost their grip and dropped a champagne flute on the plaza bricks, sending bubbly and shards of glass flying everywhere. Without missing a beat or saying a word, the former president’s daughter bent down and began picking up the glass pieces off the ground herself, even declining to hand them over to someone pleading, “Please, Ms. Johnson, give those to me.” Her gesture — humble, kind, practical, no-nonsense — seemed very much in keeping with the down-to-earth persona of someone Austin Family magazine has called one of the Texas’ favorite first daughters.
Luci, an old friend of Arboretum supporters Mary McDermott Cook and Bill McIntyre, was there to receive the organization’s annual Great Contributors Award and to be interviewed by Rena Pederson, another of her Dallas acquaintances. The focus of the conversation with Rena would be Luci’s mother and “all her contributions,” based on a current exhibit of letters, photographs, clothing and artifacts at the Austin-based LBJ Presidential Library titled “Lady Bird: Beyond the Wildflowers.”
The Arboretum fundraiser, which included the reception as well as a seated dinner, attracted 270 guests. Among them: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center architect Tim Blonkvist, the Center’s Executive Director Lee Clippard, Jane and Jim Ryan, Carol and Steve Baker, Joan and Alan Walne, Marilyn Augur, Caren and Pete Kline, Calvert Collins, Sara and David Martineau, Dan Patterson, Elizabeth Robertson with David Nichols, Nancy Black, Sue and Phil John, Barbara and Bob Sypult and Barbara Bigham (with an accessory just made for the occasion: a Judith Leiber purse in the shape of a lady bird).
Following the outdoor reception, where the great Dave Alexander Band serenaded the guests with Texas swing music, everyone repaired to Rosine Hall for a dinner of Texas Steakhouse “wedge” salad, filet mignon with chicken fried lobster tail, beans and carrots and Hill Country molten chocolate lava cake.
The formal program kicked off with a few words from Mary, whose late mother Margaret McDermott knew Lady Bird well. “I don’t like doing this,” Mary confessed. “Luci has told me I sound more like her mother than ever. She sounds more like her mother, too. We ride on coattails, and that’s one of the reasons Luci and I are such great friends. We’ve laughed together, we’ve cried together. And it’s thanks to our parents, who enabled us to make the changes we do for Dallas and Texas.”
The conversation between Luci and Rena was introduced by Bill, who said he first met Luci in 1959, when he was a page in the U.S. Senate. (“She tried out her creamed tuna on toast on me,” he recalled with a smile.) The first daughter and Rena then sat in comfortable chairs facing each other on a raised stage, where over the next hour or so Luci proceeded to reveal that:
- First Lady Jackie Kennedy once wrote Lady Bird a seven-page letter letting her know how “thrilled” Jackie was that young Luci, then 13, and her sister, Lynda Bird Johnson, had been able to attend a state dinner for the president of Sudan. Luci was “exuberant” to discover the letter decades later, she said, because Lady Bird originally had the girls believing the dinner invitation must have been “some horrible mistake,” because they were so young at the time.
- LBJ asked Lady Bird to marry him on their very first date, and pleasing, adoring and loving him became her lifelong preoccupation. She was also one of his frankest critics. The First Lady once critiqued one of LBJ’s press conferences, Luci said, telling him that he had been “tall, strong and believable,” but also “a little breathless, and you could have gotten to the point a little quicker. All in all, a B+.” Added Luci: “My parents graded everything!”
- The first daughter also recalled her mother’s four-day Southern train trip in support of LBJ’s 1964 election campaign and the Civil Rights Act he’d just signed into law. Although the legislation turned parts of the south into hostile territory for the new president, Luci said, her mother was committed to the trip because, she thought, “I’m a daughter of the south, and we have one great nation.” The whistle-stop tour was greeted in some spots with protestors carrying signs like, “Blackbird, Blackbird, fly away home,” Luci remembered. But Lady Bird was unfailingly polite and unwavering as she told the crowds: “It is so wonderful to be back in the south, where I know good manners matter.” Said Luci: “She was not there to chastise. She thought we should all have a chance to have our say.”
- Just as her mother was involved in conservation, the arts and the Head Start program for children, Luci too worked for Head Start and has maintained a lifetime commitment to healthcare, social justice, education and the environment. And, just like Lady Bird, the first daughter also knew and respected the McDermott clan. “In my family we tended to use the words Margaret McDermott and Mary McDermott Cook as verbs,” Luci said. “You knew when you’d been ‘McDermott-ized.’ You knew that when you accepted their invitations, your horizons would be enriched.”
At evening’s end, after Mary, Bill and his wife Shirley McIntyre and Arboretum Board President Jim Ryan had presented Luci with her Great Contributor Award, the humble, kind, down-to-earth first daughter got in the last word. “What a high this has been for me,” she said to the crowd, holding up the award. “And it’s not immoral or illegal. It’s not even fattening!”
More looks of the evening can be found at MySweetCharity Photo Gallery.