In May 1971, I took my freshman-year finals at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I did not head back home right away, though. Instead, I flew on a one-way ticket from Willard Airport in Savoy, Illinois to Austin, Texas.
The reason? My dad, editorial cartoonist Art Henrikson, decided to bring our family with him to the 15th annual American Association of Editorial Cartoonists’ convention. The convention was held in Austin, Texas to coincide with the opening of the LBJ Presidential Library, adjacent to the University of Texas at Austin.
However, the highlight was a three-hour afternoon visit to the LBJ Ranch in nearby Johnson City. Several buses filled with 144 cartoonists and their families were guests of former President and First Lady Lyndon Baines and Lady Bird Johnson.
We watched in awe as the white gate to the ranch entrance opened slowly after the bus drivers identified our group. My sisters, ages 12 and 8, my parents, and I walked onto the ranch grounds and squinted to get a glimpse of our hosts. Sure enough, they appeared and started shaking hands. The diminutive Lady Bird wore a flowery red and white two-piece pants outfit, while LBJ towered over her in a tan Western suit.
One by one, we moved up the line closer to the former President and First Lady. My dad was the first in our family to shake LBJ’s hand. Eventually, my mom, sisters and I reached the front of the line and nervously shook hands with the former President. We did not know what to say, so we simply smiled as he moved on to shake hands with the next guests.
The cartoonists and their families were encouraged to roam the massive grounds and even explore the first floor of the family home! We wandered inside the family room and spotted three separate console television sets. It was reported that LBJ watched the evening news simultaneously on all three networks (NBC, ABC and CBS) while he was in the White House, and he continued to do so 2 1/2 years after leaving office.
We roamed the grounds afterwards and caught a glimpse of a casually dressed young woman in pigtails pushing a stroller. It was Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, the oldest daughter of the former President and First Lady. Lynda Bird must have been beckoned by her dad so that he could show off his granddaughters to the cartoonists. Soon a granddaughter was bouncing on LBJ’s knee. Also on display was one of LBJ’s beagles. I remembered when LBJ yanked on the ears of his dogs on the White House lawn.
While LBJ thrived as the center of attention, we spotted Lady Bird and her daughter chatting away quietly in a less crowded area. I summoned enough nerve to ask them for their autographs, so I grabbed a blank piece of paper and a pen from my dad and headed their way. They smiled and graciously signed their names!
Our ranch visit was followed by an impromptu bus tour of the 2,000 acres owned by LBJ. Believe it or not, LBJ drove his white Lincoln Continental open convertible himself with five personally selected cartoonists in the car with him. Lady Bird hopped onto our bus, sat right in front of us and used a walkie talkie radio to receive instructions from her husband and serve as our private tour guide. All four buses drove in an erratic and bumpy route because LBJ impulsively would stop his convertible to show us Texas Longhorn, antelope, deer and wild turkey. His driving at times irked his wife.
After we toured LBJ’s boyhood home, Lady Bird bade us a fond farewell. Our fellow bus passengers marveled with us about our unbelievable experience as we headed back to Austin for the final banquet.
I guarded my precious autograph of Lady Bird and Lynda Bird on the car ride all the way back home to Des Plaines, Illinois.
My treasured autograph of Lady Bird and Lynda Bird hangs on my wall today as a reminder of my once-in-a-lifetime visit to the LBJ Ranch!
Diane Henrikson Russell joined OLLI in 2014. She has taken over 70 OLLI courses on literature, writing, history, health and wellness, art, music, language, sociology, technology, theater and genealogy. Diane volunteers as a proofreader for the OLLI class catalog and for OLLI Connects, and is a regular OLLI Connects contributor.