Lady Bird Johnson, former first lady of the United States and highway beautification advocate, was inducted into the Texas Transportation Hall of Honor at a reception and ceremony in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, Oct. 17. The event was co-sponsored by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI).
“We are honored to give a very special recognition to a visionary leader whose ideas and concepts have impacted our transportation system in such a positive manner for so many years,” said Dennis Christiansen, TTI agency director. “Lady Bird Johnson’s commitment to roadside beautification affects the lives of our state and country’s citizens every day. Her enormous contributions have made Texas roadsides the envy of the nation.”
“You look at the kids who stop to have their picture made in the wildflowers on the highways every spring, and they think the Indian paintbrushes and bluebonnets have always been there—that is how Texas has always looked to them,” said Phil Wilson, agency director of the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). “This is a legacy event and a great honor to recognize the teamwork and effort that Mrs. Johnson has put into place.”
Johnson made improving the aesthetic appeal of U.S. highways her major initiative as first lady of the United States by promoting the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which was nicknamed “Lady Bird’s Bill.” The bill sought to beautify the nation’s Interstate Highway System by landscaping roadside areas, limiting billboards and cleaning up junk yards near highways.
For 20 years, Mrs. Johnson gave monetary awards to TxDOT districts that used native Texas plants to the fullest measure possible. She hosted the annual Texas Highways Beautification Awards ceremonies, presenting personal checks to the award winners and treating them to a barbeque lunch. Five of the former winners of the awards were able to participate in the Oct. 17 ceremony: Tommie Jones, Gilbert Jordan, Russell Luther, Mark McClanahan, and Kyle Moseley—all still TxDOT maintenance division employees today.
“The Texas Department of Transportation was more than another government service to Mom, and the employees there were more than just friends—they were family,” said Luci Johnson, daughter of the former First Lady. “From the maintenance foremen to the commissioners, they were marching in the same parade of shared values, interests and life goals. Mother wanted the highway maintenance foremen to be rewarded for ‘planting native,’ so she created the highway maintenance awards.”
Other speakers at the ceremony honoring Johnson were Susan Rieff, executive director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; Ellen Temple and Glenn Biggs, family friends and members of the Lady Bird Johnson Awards Selection Committee; and Neal Spelce, family friend and spokesperson.
Johnson’s focus on the advantages and beauty of native plants led her to create the National Wildflower Research Center in 1982, renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in honor of her 85th birthday in 1997. She would have turned 100 years old this year.
“For the Texas A&M Transportation Institute to honor mother’s work and her centennial is a big deal to our family as it would have been to her,” Luci Johnson said. “But no remembrance could mean more than the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s desire to enroll her into the Texas Transportation Hall of Honor, for oh, did she honor your mission.”
Johnson becomes the 37th member of the Hall of Honor, which was established in 2000 by TTI as a way to recognize select individuals who played pivotal roles in the advancement of transportation in Texas and the nation. Each individual inducted is recognized by a plaque on permanent display in the hall, which is located at TTI on the campus of Texas A&M University.