When Lyndon B. Johnson took office as president of the United States in the wake of the tragic death of President John F. Kennedy, I was a young wife and mother, rocking a baby in the small den adjoining our kitchen. With two preschool daughters, a home business as a piano teacher, continuous piles of laundry and bills, and daily meals to prepare, I had little time to think about history or politics. As the years of Johnson’s presidency followed, somehow, I lacked respect for the man. I had no idea about his personal life, the ideals he held for our government, or the passage of bills he pushed concerning education and civil rights. All of those things lived only in the shadows of my busy life.
In 2015, the movie, “Selma,” is playing in theaters. Clips on television have shown President Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King at odds over a bill for voting rights. Other news reports gave bits of transcribed taped phone conversations between the two men, shedding light that the President supported Dr. King in his endeavors to seek voting rights for the black population of our country. While watching these segments on morning news, I said to Lee: “After our visits to the LBJ Ranch and Johnson’s boyhood home in Texas, I changed my mind about Lyndon Johnson—as a man and as a president.” I had to grow and gain exposure to a larger world in my “elderly” (I often bristle at the word in reference to my age!) years. After the age of 50, I had the opportunities to travel and visit many places in our country—places that opened my mind and heart to differing viewpoints, landscapes, and cultures. One of those places is the Texas Hill Country where Lyndon B. Johnson grew up and where he conducted a major part of our nation’s business in his ranch home that the press named “The Texas White House.”
Actually, Lee and I have made two trips to the LBJ National Historic Park, which is Lyndon Johnson’s beloved ranch—a working ranch even during his presidential terms. Although his boyhood home is in nearby Johnson City, Lyndon Johnson’s early years were on the land he later acquired for his home and ranch. He was born not far from the house where his revered grandfather lived on what is now LBJ Ranch property. As a young boy, he walked barefoot to his grandfather’s house, where he typically received an apple. He spent hours of his boyhood roaming the banks of the Pedernales River—the river that flows in front of his ranch house. Today, guests to the ranch cross a modern bridge. But in the early days of Johnson’s presidency, he delighted in leading caravans of guests’ cars splashing over the river’s water on a low water bridge. Lyndon Johnson was a boisterous, energetic man shaped by the ruggedness of the Texas Hill Country. He loved people, loved his family, and loved his land. Yet, he could be withdrawn, sitting with his own thoughts. As a world leader, he bore the weight of the Vietnam War and the often volatile changes occurring in the United States during the 1960s. Those who knew him best have said he was in all probability the last president whose roots and early upbringing bridged the gap between the old America of local frontiers, crossroads, and close neighbors, and the new America of world power, big cities, and unknown neighbors. His deepest passion as a public man was to make people neighbors again.
In my visits, I learned of his humble beginnings. His father moved the family from the land at Stonewall, Texas, to Johnson City, fourteen miles east. Lyndon Johnson was only five. Sam Johnson, a Texas legislator, taught his sons the facts of politics. As a teenager, Lyndon often accompanied his dad to the legislature. His mother, Rebekah, was college-educated, a rarity for a woman in that time in history. She instilled a love of education in her children.
Lyndon Johnson had started school at age four back on the land that became the LBJ Ranch. The one-room Junction School that he attended still stands. In 1927, he graduated high school in Johnson City and left to attend Southwest Texas Teacher’s College. To pay his bills, he took a teaching job close to the border between Mexico and Texas because the position paid more. Education was a priority for him, but his father also influenced him toward politics. The two priorities melded when as president, he became known as America’s “Education President.” The Johnson Administration saw the passage of over 30 education bills. It was only fitting that President Johnson returned to his first school to sign one of the major education bills. He sat on a picnic table with his first teacher, Miss Katie Deadrich, and signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on April 11, 1965.
President Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, loved to entertain. Because many officials—and heads of other countries—visited the LBJ Ranch, an airstrip was built. The Johnsons put out a huge Texas spread—typically barbecue with trimmings—for guests. Sometimes at twilight, the president would say, “Let’s go for a ride…” and he would get behind the wheel of his white convertible with steer horns mounted on the hood and lead an entourage around his ranchland. He loved Texas; he loved his cattle, and he always returned to his ranch to renew his strength and spirit. The ranch was a healing place, far removed from the turbulence of Washington. His birthplace was down the road and his ancestral cemetery covered a plot of ground under ancient live oaks, a place the family put his body to rest only four years after he left the presidency.
President and Mrs. Johnson donated a portion of the LBJ Ranch to the National Park service in 1972. Johnson stipulated to park planners that the LBJ Ranch remain a working ranch, and not a “…sterile relic of the past.” Today, the National Park Service maintains a herd of Hereford cattle descended from the President’s registered herd and manages the ranch lands as a living demonstration of ranching by LBJ methods. A show barn built for the care and training of cattle continues to serve as the center for present-day ranching operations. Visitors can tour the ranch on a self-guided driving tour. With the help of Workamper volunteers, who serve in the show barn and as interpreters to the Texas White House, guests get a glimpse into the Texas Hill Country that shaped and molded the 36th President of the United States—the place of his birth, the land on which he played as a child, and the home to which he returned.
At the Texas White House, President Johnson placed a doormat at the front door that read: “All the World is Welcome Here.” It was true during his presidency—and it remains true today. In 1999, Lady Bird Johnson said, “We…wanted the LBJ Ranch to be our home for the remaining years left to us, and then to be open to all who wished to visit.” Our trips to the ranch, the adjoining Lyndon B. Johnson State Park, and Johnson’s boyhood home in Johnson City, put flesh and personality on President Johnson. A tour of the Texas Whitehouse—the Johnsons’ home—gave insight to a man who gained world power, but retained his roots in Texas soil and among common people.