LBJ's children reflect on JFK assassination and dad's legacy

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by GLORIA CAMPOS

Bio | Email | Follow: @gloriacampos

WFAA

Posted on November 13, 2013 at 11:06 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 18 at 5:33 PM

The assassination of John F Kennedy put veteran Washington lawmaker Lyndon Baines Johnson in the White House as the nation’s 36th president.

Suddenly, two teenage girls from Texas were thrust into the international spotlight when their father unexpectedly became the nation's commander-in-chief.

Lynda Bird Johnson was 19 years old and a student at the University of Texas when she heard the news of President Kennedy's violent death from a classmate.

"She came over and told me that she heard on the radio the president was shot," Lynda recalled in a series of lectures to University of Texas students from 2008-2012. "We literally fell on our knees and started praying."

Lynda’s 16-year-old sister Luci Bird was in Spanish class at the National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington on November 22, 1963.

"A young woman ran into class yelling, 'The president’s been shot! The president’s been shot!'" she recalled.

Later — when a Secret Service agent came to collect her at school — Luci heard that the man she called "Uncle Johnny," Texas Gov. John Connally, had also been been shot.

But there was no word about the status of her parents.

Vice-president Lyndon Johnson was quickly sworn in aboard Air Force One at Dallas Love Field, and from that point forward, both of his children had the same reaction: "My life was changed forever."

Luci called the next five years "the best of times and the worst of times." Her father ushered in 200 laws now considered landmark legislation — creating Head Start, Medicare, the Public Broadcasting System, and perhaps most significantly the Voting Rights Act.

But that "terrible war," as Luci called it, was escalating in Vietnam. It became LBJ’s heavy burden, and brought daily taunts outside the White House.

Crowds would jeer: "Hey, hey LBJ... how many boys did you kill today?"

It was especially hurtful since both young women had husbands serving in Vietnam.

"Often it was the refrain as we went to sleep, as we rocked our babies," Luci told the UT students in Harry Middleton’s class.

The Johnson sisters came to view life in White House as a prison... a fish bowl where their every action was scrutinized.

But with the passage of time, the painful memories ebbed and the pride flowed. They say they are blessed to be witnesses to so many historical moments.

For her University of Texas lectures, Luci Johnson brings boxes of framed letters and photographs, sharing her observations with a fortunate few students.

The sisters are still very involved with the LBJ Library in Austin, eager to share their father’s message that "the real getting is in the giving," reflecting upon years as witnesses of tremendous social and political change ushered in by their father.

"I look at this picture," Luci said as she held up a picture of her newborn son, Lyndon, and LBJ. "I hadn’t done anything, yet my father made me feel that I, too, had served and played a role."

Over the summer, the Johnson sisters recorded their memories for the LBJ Library once again. The interviews were released November 12 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.

If you can't visit the library in Austin, many of the documents and artifacts can be viewed online at the Tragedy and Transition website.

E-mail gcampos@wfaa.com

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