A Beautiful Legacy

by PAT WILLIAMS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & ost often we don't even know the names of people who have made our lives better: a kindness from a long-forgotten neighbor of our youth, the effect of which still silently reverberates these decades later; the helpful legislation of an elected official whose name we have never heard but the legacy of which improved our personal life. Throughout our lives, we are the unknowing recipients of acts -- small or grand -- and, yet, the person responsible for those goes unrecognized.

Earlier this month, one of those helpmates of yours passed away at the age of 94. Claudia Taylor, a name likely unknown to most, was born in the small Texas town of Karnack. Her mother died while Claudia was very young. She remembered that her father was "always busy, very loving but busy."

Alone she would often walk the dirt roads near her home, looking at the clouds, listening to the birds and delighting in the wildflowers. She came to love wildflowers and the beauty around her.

It was that love and her own quiet, charming determination that bettered your life. And, of course, she has a name, a married name, that you do recognize -- Claudia Taylor Johnson -- Lady Bird.

When she died, Americans remembered her for beautifying our landscape, particularly the thousands of miles alongside our interstate highways -- so much of which run through the Rocky Mountain West. Lady Bird considered the interstate system the largest of America's memorials, but she knew it wasn't particularly attractive so she decided to try to convince the U.S. Congress and her husband, President Lyndon Johnson, to support her Highway Beautification Act.

Because of Lady Bird, our highways are no longer ribbons of debris thrown thoughtlessly out of car windows. They are no longer littered with the picket fence of billboards closing our views of mountain, river and prairie. Many of our highways are now lined with expanses of grass and wildflowers by the millions. Thank you, Lady Bird.

But there was more -- a lot more -- that was done for you, for us, by Claudia Taylor. She faced down the Ku Klux Klan during her 1,628-mile campaign road trip in support of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. She used her considerable southern charm to help pass the National Clean Water Act, and she championed the funding of our parks, including Yellowstone, Glacier and Rocky Mountain national parks.

During the riots of the 1960s, she would go into the charred inner cities and, with spade and shovel, plant daffodils. "Lady Bird," wrote the Washington Post, "preferred to focus on our health instead of our pathology."

I lived in Washington, D.C., at least part-time for 21 years, first arriving there at the beginning of the changes for which Mrs. Johnson was responsible. Because of her determined, simple efforts, the public areas, the government spaces, have made D.C. the world's most beautiful Capitol city. Thank you, Claudia Taylor, for giving each of us that pride -- we sure need it now.

Thank you, Lady Bird, for changing each of our lives for the better.

This column first appeared in Headwaters News (www.headwatersnews.org), which covers issues facing the Rocky Mountain West. Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana, where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West, of which Headwaters News is a project.