A wise person once asked me, "What do you suppose motivated people to work before there was money?" I looked blankly at this individual and couldn't think of a thing. Her answer was: "Across time, what has motivated humans is a desire to improve living conditions and beautify the environment." That was simple enough. And to this day, I use these two measurements when assessing the value of people’s actions. For example, when I think of Princess Dianna, Mother Theresa, and now Lady Bird Johnson, I look past the media glitz and politics involved to see their successes in a different light. All of these women—Dianna, Theresa and Lady Bird—were motivated during their lifetimes by something more than greed and the pursuit of money. Each, in her own way, worked to improve the conditions around them and beautify the world. Living in Austin, Texas, I can see evidence of Lady Bird's actions to improve and beautify at every turn.
When I moved to Austin twenty odd years ago, amusing stories circulated that told what made the city different from the rest of Texas. It was said, the area was covered with a rainbow bubble that kept the community young, vital and open-minded. Once people hit the highway and cruised outside the city limits, they entered the land of conservative "rednecks" that typified the rest of Texas. I remember thinking: it’s to be expected, after all Austin holds at its heart a large university. When I mentioned that to "old" Austinites, ones who'd been privy to a lot more local legends, they scoffed at my superficial assessment. Yes, the university accounted for some of the dynamic liberalism evident, but there was much more to it. And as the account went on, there was always mention of the part Lady Bird played in the unfolding of Austin's distinctiveness.
If legend serves truth, in the late 1960's and early '70's, parents from the conservative towns and rural ranches across Texas sent their precious (and also conservative) high school graduates into Austin for a "liberal" education. Well, they got more liberated than expected—and not just in the ideological arena. They grew long hair, donned ratty clothing with strange symbols slapped on them, and just generally appeared disheveled. To a one, they proved an embarrassment on their visits home. The proverbial hand-writing was on the wall: after graduation, there was no way they could return home for good. Especially because their young no longer wanted to go back; they liked it just fine within the bubble of broadminded Austin. So the parents put their heads together—we're talking mostly about the Texas oil and cattle rich now—to make the town of Austin a paradise for young families. And who comes galloping in to play a role, but Lady Bird Johnson with a city beautification program.
Running from west to east across Austin, the shore line of the Colorado River was lassoed into a city park that to this day includes the most attractive and amazing features. For example, the Barton Springs swimming pool is a huge, spring-fed part of the river that has been cordoned off and equipped with all the amenities including diving board and life guards. Nearby is a fantastic playscape and nature center for Austin’s young. Even a miniature railroad runs under the trees along the river during the summer season. Also in this area, called Zilker Park, are open grassy areas and botanical gardens. Soccer and baseball fields are tucked away here and there. And from this hub of activity run the hike and bike trails that follow the river across town. Beyond a doubt Lady Bird's work resulted in Austin's premier recreational attractiveness to this day.
Back in the days, before Lady Bird's beautification program hit town, the Colorado River was divided by damns into a series of lakes that cross central Texas. So while I have been calling the stretch of water that runs through Austin "the river," until recently it was referred to as "Town Lake." After Lady Bird's death, the name was changed to "Lady Bird." A modest woman, she would not allow city officials to use her name in junction with the lake while she lived, but on her deathbed agreed to the request. As a result, many "old" Austinites—and after decades here, I consider myself one—cannot forget she left here a special expression of her love for the city-under-the-bubble. We now look out across the water, or along the green shores, and feel ourselves a part of her legacy. We want to tread lightly on her trails, swim gracefully in the springs and celebrate with joy the nature around us. This was Lady Bird's ultimate gift: she gave us beauty, knowing its power never fades away, but lives forever in our midst.