Presidential Mothers: Rebecca Baines Johnson had high hopes for her first born

Published 2:02 pm Tuesday, May 16, 2023

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By  Betty Etchison West

Enterprise Record

It is said that “it is hard to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”  It may be equally as hard to make a cultured young man out of the tough Texas youngster, but the mother of Lyndon Baines Johnson sure tried.

Rebekah Baines was born to Joseph Wilson Baines and Ruth Amant Huffman Baines on June 26, 1881.  Rebekah grew up in a nice town home where the people were a bit more cultured than were some of the Texas cowboys.

Rebekah went to college. She attended three schools, Baylor University, where her grandfather was once president; the University of Texas; and Baylor Female College. She was trained in elocution and journalism.

Sam Johnson was a tall young Texan who may have been charming, but who was a bit rough around the edges. It is somewhat of a puzzle as to why Rebekah and Sam were attracted to each other since they seemed so different in so many ways.

It is known that Rebekah was interested in politics, which was rare for a girl, and Sam was interested in politics. He was or would become a member of the Texas State Legislature. Politics was one interest they had in common.

Whatever caused Rebekah Baines and Sam Johnson to get interested in each other may not be important. The important thing is that attraction led to a marriage. Rebekah Baines married Samuel Ealy Johnson Jr. on Aug. 20, 1907, when she was 26.

The marriage was sometimes a rocky one because those two seems to have such different values.   Sam and Rebekah moved to a “dog-trot” cottage, which was a house with a breezeway that separated two living areas, on Sam’s father’s farm near Stonewall, Texas, which is in the hill region.

Bonnie Angelo’s book, “First Mothers, The Women Who Shaped the Presidents,” describes the hill region of Texas: “The Hill Country of mid-Texas is not like the rest of the state. It separates the plains of the north Texas from that gullied brush country of the south, and its climate combines the worst of both parts.  In winter, winds slashed down from the north, finding the smallest chink in a house, overwhelming fireplaces trying to warm a room. In summer smothering heat drained the energy of man and beast and parched the land to a sullen brown.”   

In addition to living in a small house with no conveniences, Rebekah had to deal with an environment that was often hostile.

Rebekah, having grown up in town, was offended by the coarse language and manners she encountered after the move to the farm. Rebekah is quoted in Angelo’s book as saying, “I was determined to overcome circumstances instead of letting them overwhelm me. I realized that life is real and earnest and not the charming fairy tale which I had so long dreamed.” That real and earnest statement sounds like Longfellow’s poem, “The Village Blacksmith” which was published ca. 1840 and with which Rebekah was probably familiar.

The first son of Sam and Rebekah Johnson was born on a stormy night; a night so stormy the doctor, who lived 20 miles away, could not get to the house. If he had gotten close, he could not have gotten across the Pedernales River, which was flooded as it never had.

A midwife delivered the baby boy. From the time that her first son was born, Rebekah was determined that he must have “a proper start in the world.”  That son, Lyndon Baines Johnson, would get such a start from his mother. Note that Rebekah clung to her maiden name by giving it to her son as his middle name—that was somewhat reminiscent of Sara Delano Roosevelt, who named her son Franklin Delano Roosevelt, thereby hanging on to the name Delano.

Quoting from the Angelo book, “The Baines’ style of life, as Rebekah remembered it, was considerably grander than that of the Johnson’s. She married down in terms of fortune and position, and would make up for that by raising her children with Baines values and standards.”

Rebekah taught Lyndon to read long before he started to school. She decided that Lyndon should take violin lessons as part of the effort to make him a bit more cultured. Lyndon’s lack of talent and interest put an early end to that.

Then, Rebekah tried dancing lessons for Lyndon. He teased the girls in the class so much that he got ejected. Lyndon was known as quite a dancer after he was in the White House—he must have learned somewhere.

Rebekah did not have much luck with making Lyndon a more cultured individual in some ways, but she worked with him on his elocution and was a bit more successful. Lyndon was chosen to recite a poem at the end-of-school program. That boy stood up and spoke every word correctly with the right emphasis. You can bet that Rebekah Johnson was the proudest parent at that program. After he became President, Lyndon said that he needed his mother to help him with his speeches.

The Johnson family moved from Stonewall to the small town, Johnson City, Texas.  Their fortunes waxed and waned, but times seemed better when they lived in town.  Lyndon finished high school, and, of course, his mother wanted him to go to college.

Can you believe that instead of doing what his mother had always wanted and dreamed of him doing, Lyndon and three other boys got an old model-T and set out for California?  Rebekah’s was heart-broken. She had other children to whom she had to be concerned, but the son that she expected to be so successful had totally “run off the track.”

Once in California, the boys found as the song said, “All the gold in California was in the bank in somebody else’s name” was true. In less than two years, Lyndon headed back to Texas.  He still was not ready to go back to school. He went to work on a road crew. After several months of hard work, he came to his mother and said: “I’ve tried it with my hands. If you will help me, I am ready to try it with my head.”  A

lmost before Lyndon finished the sentence, Rebekah was on the telephone with the President of Southwest Texas State Teachers College. The President promised Lyndon a job, if he enrolled there.  Lyndon’s mother did everything necessary to get him enrolled which included staying up all night to help him with plane geometry so he could pass the entrance exam.

Lyndon got along great at Southwest Texas State Teacher’s College, but after two years he decided to quit school and teach a year to make a little money. He taught at Cotulla, where the school population was made up of needy Mexican children. Lyndon said that the poverty he saw at Cotulla influenced him as he considered legislation after he went to Washington. After working at Cotulla for a year, Lyndon went back to college, completed all requirements for graduation.

After he graduated from college, Lyndon got a job which lasted a short time because he was offered a job which really appealed to him. Congressman Richard Kleberg offered to hire him as his secretary.  Lyndon jumped at that opportunity, was hired, and spent the rest of his career involved in the government of the United States.

Rebekah, who had always been a politically astute lady, was as happy as she could be. She felt that at last her effort had paid off and Lyndon was going to be a successful citizen.

After Lyndon moved to Washington, he came back home for a visit and met a beautiful young lady. Never one to waste time, Lyndon decided right away that he was going to marry that charming lady, Claudia Taylor, who was called Lady Bird. She was not quite as carried away as Lyndon, but, as always when he set his head on something, Lyndon convinced Lady Bird that they should get married right away.

Ten weeks later, on Nov. 17, 1934, Lady Bird and Lyndon were married at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Antonio, Texas.  Rebekah welcomed Lady Bird with open arms, and the two became good friends.

Lyndon Johnson and his family lived the rest of his mother’s life in Washington, but he and his mother wrote to each other often.  The following is found in the Angelo book: “Twenty-six years later, on Mother’s Day 1956, the powerful majority leader of the U.S. Senate put aside his work to write: “I am so grateful for having you for my mother—a woman of such fine spirit and unlimited devotion. You have been my inspiration, always and whatever I am or become, the credit for all that is good will be yours.”

The woman who had spent her life trying to give her children the best life possible must have been rewarded by such a letter.

Rebekah enjoyed visiting the Johnsons in Washington, but she died before her son became the 36th President. Rebekah died of cancer of the lymphatic system on Sept. 12, 1958, five years before her son was inaugurated as President.

Years after her death, Lyndon said: “She helped me on everything until the day she died.”When he was President, Johnson sometimes used some rather crude language at which his mother would have been horrified, so it is may be good she did not hear her son’s graphic speech.

Rebekah is buried beside her husband, Sam Johnson, in the Johnson Family Cemetery at Stonewall, Texas, near where her son, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and his wife, Claudia (Lady Bird) Johnson, are buried.  President Johnson died on Jan. 22, 1973, when he was 70. The graves of Lyndon’s brother, Sam Huston Johnson, and those of his three sisters are also buried in the Johnson Family Cemetery.  That cemetery is near Lyndon Johnson’s Ranch House, which is now called the Texas White House.   Lyndon said that after he left Washington and moved back to his ranch, he visited the Johnson Family Cemetery almost every day because it was such a peaceful place with its towering live oak trees which stay green all year.