Happy Birthday Mr. President!
Today we celebrate President Lyndon B. Johnson’s birthday! We thought we’d share some of the history of Stonewall’s favorite son, and how he went from a small-town boy to leader of the free world.
It’s a wild story, so settle in!
Although he was born in Stonewall — a town of fewer than 200 people — politics was in Lyndon B. Johnson’s blood.
His father, Sam Ealy Johnson, Jr., served 5 terms in the Texas State Legislature. But even before that, both of LBJ’s grandfathers and his paternal great-grandfather had served in the state legislature as well.
But by the time young Lyndon arrived in 1908, life for the Johnson family was feast or famine. Sam Johnson made money and lost it all several times through LBJ’s youth. Still, they lived in a respectable, well-tended farmhouse once they moved to Johnson City.
LBJ attended the one room Junction schoolhouse in Stonewall, where he reportedly told classmates that he’d be President one day.
After high school, he traveled to California with some friends, where he worked a series of odd jobs. Within a year, he had returned home, where he worked on a railroad construction gang.
By the time he turned 19, he had tired of working with his hands. He decided to further his education and earned his teaching degree at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos. That school would later become Texas State University.
But he only taught for about two years before the course of his life shifted to politics.
Starting a Political Career
On a recommendation from his well-connected father, LBJ got his first job in Washington as secretary to Representative Richard Kleberg in 1931. He thrived in the role, handling Rep. Kelberg’s day-to-day tasks and learning about the political process.
It was a trip home to Texas during this time that he met a 21-year-old woman named Claudia Alta Taylor — commonly known as Lady Bird. Not one to waste time, LBJ asked her on a date within 5 minutes. And on their date the next day, he asked her to marry him. She put him off for about two and a half months, leading to a flurry of letters between the two from Texas to Washington.
Commending him on his spontaneity, she wrote “...I love people who do things on the spur of the moment and do not weigh everything and be dreadfully sensible and conservative!”
LBJ wasn’t considered sensible and conservative by many who knew him. But Lady Bird’s charm and manners provided a calming balance to his hyperactivity and enthusiasm. The pair were married in 1934, after a 3-month courtship. They were happily married for 39 years.
We adore this photo and have it displayed in several rooms. It’s an intimate moment as the family enjoys some time on the water.
Life in Washington
Over the next 20 years, LBJ rose through the Democratic Party. He received his law degree from George Washington University — an achievement that had eluded his father and was his “greatest regret”, according to LBJ.
He won his first term in the House of Representatives in 1937 by vehemently supporting President Roosevelt’s New Deal. This support drew the attention and vocal condemnation of Texas conservatives, turning this relative unknown into a household name. The strategy worked, and he went on to serve six terms.
His time in the House ended in 1948 when he won the hotly contested Democratic Senate primary. By a margin of only 87 votes out of 250,000, he became the Democratic nominee. But allegations of fraud and the sarcastic nickname “Landslide Lyndon” would follow him for several years.
Still, Senator Johnson thrived. By 1953, he was named Senate Minority Leader. At only 44, he was the youngest ever to hold the position. The next year, he became Senate Majority Leader when the Democrats took back the Senate.
In July 1955, he suffered a massive heart attack, which led to dramatic lifestyle changes. Goodbye to 3 packs of cigarettes a day, heaping bowls of Texas chili, and 18-hour workdays. (He cut back to a practically lazy 14 hours.)
Although he sought the 1960 Presidential Democratic nomination, the spot was clinched by young Senator John F. Kennedy. But Senator Kennedy surprised LBJ when he asked him to run as his Vice President.
JFK’s East Coast Catholic upbringing was unpopular in the south and west, and he knew that a popular good ol’ boy could help him to win votes. And he was right. LBJ was able to leverage the goodwill he had built up over years of infrastructure and improvement projects that he had sent south to help the team to victory.
He was aided in this by Lady Bird, who traveled 35,000 miles to campaign for her husband. She insisted that campaign events be integrated and met with prominent African-American women while she traveled, making headlines.
Tragedy in 1963
In 1963 on a trip to Dallas, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed while riding in his motorcade. Vice President Johnson was three cars behind them with Mrs. Johnson.
That afternoon, aboard Air Force One, Lyndon B. Johnson was inaugurated as the 36th President of the United States.
It’s at this point that President Johnson’s story intersects our own.
The President in Stonewall
President Johnson spent most of his time in Washington, but he also liked to travel back to his home in Johnson City and Stonewall. But this quiet part of Texas wasn’t equipped to handle the press, Secret Service, dignitaries, and celebrities that created a President’s entourage.
So Kermitt and Tillie Hahne, old friends of the Johnson family and owners of the one cafe in Stonewall, built the Stonewall Motel in 1964. The 12-room motel provided a place for visitors to stay when the President was in town. It also contained a dark room where the ever present Press Corp could develop their film to get out on the wires.
One of the most regular visitors was AP photographer Ferd Kaufman, famous for taking the first photos of Lee Harvey Oswald after his arrest. Ferd spent 5 years as a regular in the motel, including three solid months in late 1965 while the president recuperated from gallbladder surgery on the ranch. His family joined him for the holidays, staying in a mobile home behind the motel while Fred chased LBJ all over the Texas countryside.
Reporters would eat breakfast in their cars in the motel parking lot, waiting for the President’s motorcade to drive to church by so they could follow. No one was ever sure which church the President would choose to go to that Sunday, so it was always a scramble to find out!
The Hahnes also hosted large barbecues for the visitors, providing southern hospitality to legends like Buzz Aldrin, Walter Cronkite, Jimmy Carter, Carol Channing, Gregory Peck, and Douglas MacArthur. They served chicken, deer, turkey legs, and thick-cut steaks with potato salad and spiced tea.
A Rockefeller once gave Tillie an $80 tip, which she spent in Austin on a new coat. She called it her “Rockefeller coat”.
The Hahnes even got to visit Lady Bird in the White House in September 1968, and catch a ride in Air Force One back to Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio. From there, the Hahnes accompanied the President to the ranch on a small Jetstar jet.
On Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Hahnes would close the cafe and and open it exclusively to the press, flight crews and ranch staff. They were incredibly dedicated to extending their Stonewall hospitality to the people who had to be away from their families.
President Lyndon B. Johnson
LBJ split his time between the White House and the “Texas White House” while he promoted his “Great Society” — his vision for America in support of the arts, education, civil rights, urban renewal and beautification, and Medicare.
To that end, he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and appointed Thurgood Marshall as the first African-American on the Supreme Court. He signed legislation that created the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio. And he approved the creation of both Medicare and Medicaid.
In 1965, he signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in Stonewall, in front of his old one-room Junction School. The bill provided additional education funding in low-income communities, in the form of grants.
But throughout all of this innovation, the War in Vietnam overshadowed his legacy. A firm believer in the “Domino Theory” that predicted the fall of more nations to Communism, he was determined to support South Vietnam against Communist North Vietnam. He increased the number of troops in Vietnam dramatically, and his own popularity plummeted as a result.
In 1968, he announced that he would not run for re-election.
The war controversy took its toll on President Johnson. Only 4 years after he left office, Lyndon B. Johnson died of a heart attack. He was 64 years old.
The Hahnes remained good friends with Lady Bird. Tillie cooked for her at the ranch for 11 years, after Kermitt passed away in 1980.
LBJ at Home
We’ve covered much LBJ’s public life, but a biography can only shed a limited amount of light on who a person was. So we delved into the archives and photos at the LBJ Library at The University of Texas at Austin, where we found some wonderful photos. In the end, he was just a “good ‘ol’ Texas boy”. The photos below show his lighter side, his love of his ranch and cattle, and his devotion to his family.
Mr. President, we wish you the best on what would
have been your 111th birthday!
Special thanks to our awesome researcher and copywriter Kate McDermott with www.eatdrinkandwritecopy.com who worked with us and the LBJ Presidential Library to create this rich history. Below are sources for her material referenced in the article.