When Mrs. Johnson passed away, a well-choreographed team of experts in black suits and comfortable shoes, equipped with earplugs, blue tooth enabled phones, walkie-talkies, and laminated badges sprang into action orchestrating every last detail of the “Final Tribute” to a woman who was greatly loved.
That was as it should be.
Nothing should be left to chance.
Every detail must be considered.
Protocol is paramount.
But dozens of people, spontaneously joined together by grief, came forward to offer service or to simply join with others to honor her with their presence.
They lined up outside of the LBJ Library & Museum all day Friday, throughout the evening and into the next day to pay tribute to her – 12, 252 in all. (Keeping count = A detail the “suits” didn’t leave to chance!)
A member of Future Forum, the Texas Forums sister organization at the LBJ Library stopped me on the plaza at 8:30 p.m. asking how he could help. Others sent e-mails offering their services and notes of condolences in honor of a great woman they admired. Families with young children were lined up outside of the library even at midnight. The line she faced at 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning surprised even a Texas Forums colleague.
Although I have worked with the LBJ Library since 2003, I am a very part-time coordinator of Texas Forums, an initiative funded by the LBJ Foundation. I’m on the periphery – primarily working from home or meeting in other people’s offices, or (in the Austin tradition) working out of wireless-enabled coffee shops. But like those who hovered outside of the library, I was anxious to be helpful and gratefully accepted telephone duty.
Cramped into a small cubicle shoulder to shoulder with the LBJ Library’s New Media Specialist, I hovered over the last available phone with a list of names and phone numbers and script inviting them to the Saturday funeral service. As we split the list, my colleague flipped through her own stack of names reading aloud the dignitaries she would be calling. None of the names on my list looked familiar. I wondered who they were and what relationship they had with the family that warranted an invitation to be one of 1,800 people who would gather at the Riverbend Center to say good-bye. I did not know who they were, but I knew that they were important to the Johnson family and I did my best to recite my script with the perfect balance of compassion and professionalism.
As I made my way through the list of unrecognizable names, it did not take long to realize that I had the good fortune to draw the names of those who had served their beloved Mrs. Johnson (none of her staff ever refer to her in the familiar “Lady Bird”) in large and small ways – her ophthalmologist, a former neighbor, her nutritionist, the woman who supervised her physical therapy, a manicurist from a decade ago, the children of a former neighbor, a hairdresser, a dear old friend unable to leave his rest home, but comforted by the invitation.
This only made me more conscientious about my duty. I wanted to be as professional as the walkie-talkie toting experts, but mostly, I wanted to do right by the woman whose recorded voice describing the White House often greets as I exit the 10th floor elevator at the LBJ Library.
Even the most demanding stage director would have been pleased by the way I worked through my script as I contacted the people on my list. But there was no script to prepare me for their responses.
They responded with disbelief.
“I can’t believe the family would think of me at a time like this.”
“Are you serious? Oh but of course I will be there.”
“I am in New York for my grandson’s baptism. Otherwise nothing would keep me from attending.”
“Oh, it is such an honor. I never expected I would be invited.”
“I loved her and miss her so much. I would never miss it.”
“I start a new job that day, but I will not miss this honor.”
These people not only served her. They were part of an army of people who loved her throughout her long and rich life. They poured out their hearts to me. They gave me messages to convey to the family. They told me their favorite Mrs. Johnson story. They described how they knew her. Many of them cried. All were deeply honored and humbled by the invitation.
I often ventured off script!
When I got home and heard the phone message from another volunteer inviting me to attend the funeral, I knew exactly how they felt. I may be on the periphery of the LBJ Library, like a distant cousin, but I am part of a family – a family of people who cherish the values that guided Mrs. Johnson. That’s a family we can all join.
The service was full of praise for Mrs. Johnson from those who knew her best. Eldest daughter Lynda Robb lamented following the likes of Bill Moyers (whose homily focusing on Lady Bird’s courage was printed in the Austin-American Statesman on July 15, 2007) and the grandchildren’s loving tribute to their Nini. Indeed every tribute was the perfect balance of affection, humor, love, sorrow and celebration.
I was grateful to Luci for recognizing those who served Mrs. Johnson over the years. Over 50 current and former Secret Service personnel attended her funeral. I lost count of the doctors and caregivers who stood at Luci Johnson’s urging, but I know that I talked with many of them! (And I know that seeing them there meant more to me than witnessing the gathering of those dignitaries, including one presidential candidate, whose photos were prominently featured in the newspapers.)
We all enjoy the clean, beautiful highways, and the uproarious colors of springtime in Central Texas. And we are more conscientious about our responsibility to the earth because of Mrs. Johnson’s love of nature. But “wildflower lady” is just a metaphor for an even greater legacy that was articulated by Catherine Robb’s remembrance of how her Nini planted love and Bill Moyers’ reminder that she cultivated beauty in democracy. We ought also to consciously emulate the love and courage that served her at a time when our democracy was under fire from those whose actions were governed by hate over tolerance, prejudice over justice, discrimination over dignity, and violence over peace.
Her courage in the face of pure hate carried her along the 1964 campaign trail just after President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – what Bill Moyers rightly called “the greatest single sword of justice raised for equality since the Emancipation Proclamation.”
And it was her great compassion, warmth, and love – the way she embraced “even the least of these” as her extended family – that would eventually lead to the hushed whispers “we love you Lady Bird” from fellow diners as she and her granddaughter Catherine made their way out of the restaurant after their weekly Tuesday dinners.
I have thought about Catherine’s challenge to us all to emulate the woman who planted as many “I love yous” as she did wildflowers. Few of us will ever live our lives on such a large stage, but in simple ways, we can still act in love from the wings. And love propagates more rapidly than wildflowers and thrives in soil that would challenge the hearties bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrushes.
Liz Carpenter wrote that Lady Bird took reporters along on her War on Poverty trips “to help the public look, see, and hopefully act.” In dozens of small ways, I hope that Texas Forums and our colleagues promoting civil discourse are helping the public to “look, see, and hopefully act” in ways that consider the common good…that we are providing the opportunity for people to look upon their adversaries with love…that we are creating safe spaces where people can suspend their assumptions, put aside ideological battles, and see the beauty we each posses…that we can cherish our many viewpoints and act together…and mostly, that we can love our democracy and cultivate all that is beautiful about it even when it challenges our courage.
In this then, we all have a role, because unlike formal “Final Tributes”, democracy is fraught with chance, we have to live with ambiguous murky details, and the protocols for deliberating with love and high ideals are not paramount or widely practiced.
To borrow from Mrs. Johnson’s words and that great piece of literature, Blazing Saddles, “amateurs with no official role, uniforms, high tech communication devices or ‘stinkin’ badges’, can be the ‘mirror of ourselves’ and a ‘focusing lens on what we can become’.”
Would this not be the final tribute that has no end?