||Issue Date: 10 / 2005
Johnson: A Poor Boy's Path to the Presidency
In 1921, when Lyndon B. Johnson was in the ninth grade, he told a group of children during recess: "Someday, I'm going to be President of the United States." The other children laughed at him, and said they wouldn't vote for him.
Schoolteacher and president-to-
be Lyndon B. Johnson with his
class in Cotulla, Texas, 1928.
Click image to enlarge.
Lyndon, who had large ears and a large nose, was used to other people laughing at him. He leaned his tall, lanky frame against an oak tree and said defiantly: "I won't need your votes."
"How are you going to be president if you don't go to college?" someone asked.
Lyndon didn't answer. Everyone knew he had earned spending money by shinning shoes at a barber shop. When the bell rang to signal the end of recess, the others went inside, leaving Lyndon to ponder the question and the poverty that was taking over the lives of the Johnson family.
It seemed to Lyndon that as long as the family had had money, they were respected. Just three years before, his father Samuel Johnson had been a successful state representative who knew all the right people. The only thing Lyndon had loved more than going with his dad to the legislature in Austin had been going along on his campaigns for reelection. Samuel had insisted then on Lyndon having a higher education; but now Samuel was not able to pay his creditors. Although he had purchased a farm in Stonewall, the land had thin top soil and Johnson's attempts to raise cotton had been futile. Also he had lost money on one speculation after another and had failed in his attempts to supplement his income by selling real estate and insurance.
At nine or ten, Lyndon had added to the town's ridicule of his family when he allowed the other boys to pop his ears in exchange for money. When he was twelve, Lyndon rode a donkey to the school in Albert four miles away. By then, nearly a teenager, with all the other kids riding ponies, Lyndon felt like a comic-looking figure, riding along with his long legs dangling just inches above the ground. Meanwhile, his father, unable to pay the mortgage on the farm or bank loans for equipment, sold the farm and moved to nearby Johnson City (named for Sam's cousin, Polk Johnson).
For a while, the family purchased food and necessities on credit, until the local stores refused to let them charge any longer. When Samuel Johnson didn't have the cash, he took his business to the surrounding towns--running up tabs there, too, until they too cut him off. In the end, Samuel had plunged himself and his family of five children in a tangle of debt from which there was no hope of escape--a debt that his daughter Rebekah estimates at $40,000.
When Lyndon graduated from high school in 1924, he was only sixteen--and trapped in an impoverished area "without prospects."
"People who didn't know the Depression just don't know about what being poor means," Lyndon once said. "When I finished high school in 1924, there wasn't anything going, no work at all in Johnson City, nowhere [in the Texas Hill Country]."
For three years, Lyndon watched other teenagers graduate and leave Johnson City for college. The first summer, he went to work gravel-topping six miles of highway between Johnson City and Austin. Then he hitchhiked 160 miles south to Robstown, near the Corpus Christi Gulf, where his cousins, the Ropers, lived. He told one cousin he hated working with his hands and wanted "a job where I can use my brains." But the only job he could find was in a cotton gin, where he was put to work eleven hours a day, keeping the boiler supplied with wood and water. Later, he tried washing cars, cooking in a cafe, and running an elevator in an office building.
After a year, he came home to work with his father, who was building roads for the Texas Highway Department. One day, while Lyndon was driving a gravel truck, he watched his father working as foreman of the road gang. At that moment, seeing the reality of his father's decline and his own circumstances, Lyndon decided that he had to do something else with his life. "I've had enough of working out of doors in cold weather," he told his cousin Martha during Christmas vacation. "I want out of here."
Getting an education
But there was only one way out of the Texas Hill Country--an education. Since his father was unable to give him financial assistance for college, Lyndon borrowed $75 from a banker in Blanco, fourteen miles from Johnson City. Then, carrying a cardboard suitcase, he hitchhiked thirty miles to San Marcos to begin the spring semester at Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Texas State University).
Lyndon found himself standing in a registration line with barely enough money in his pocket for the registration fee, and he was asked to pay for room and board almost immediately. Deciding he needed a place to stay until he could find a job, he sought out his cousin Martha's boyfriend Boody Johnson (no relation). As captain of the football team, Boody lived in the only free lodgings on campus, an apartment over the president's garage, which was earmarked for athletes.
According to Clayton Stripling, a halfback who was rooming with Boody, Lyndon showed up at the door and asked to move in. "Won't you help a poor boy?" Lyndon asked. Boody was willing, but Stribling wasn't eager to share the two tiny rooms.
Lyndon wouldn't take "no" for an answer. "Won't you help a poor boy?" he repeated. In the end, Stribling agreed to let Lyndon stay for thirty days." A short time afterward, Stribling moved out and Lyndon was a permanent resident of the college's only free lodgings.
Although Lyndon had solved the problem of housing, he still needed a job to stay in school, and jobs were hard to come by in San Marcos. Fortunately for Lyndon, his father had a nodding acquaintance with the college president, Dr. Cecil Evans (Sam Johnson had fought for increased legislative appropriations for teachers' colleges), and he wrote asking Evans to give Lyndon work. Evans did--but it was a job picking up trash, chopping weeds, and lugging rocks from the campus.
Although he made fair money for a college boy, Lyndon didn't like physical labor. One day he said to Boody: "The way you get ahead in this world, you get close to those that are heads of things. Like President Evans, for example."
Boody watched Lyndon develop a close relationship with the college president. Whenever Evans appeared in the yard, Lyndon would amble over to him and start up a conversation. While the others were moving rocks and litter from the grounds, Lyndon was deep in conversation with the president. After Evans discovered that he and Lyndon shared an interest in politics, he encouraged the young man to tell him stories about different lawmakers he'd met while his father was in office.
Soon, Lyndon asked Evans for a job mopping and sweeping classrooms and corridors, which paid thirty cents per hour, much more than the Rock Squad pay scale of twenty cents an hour. "Seven or eight dollars is all I can earn now," Johnson pleaded. "If you don't help me, I won't be able to stay in school."
Although the coveted "inside jobs" were generally reserved for athletes (the college did not give athletic scholarships), Evans gave Lyndon a janitorial job. The two continued their talks in the hall outside the president's office, until one day Lyndon asked if he could work directly for Evans. The president had only one assistant--an instructor, Tom Nichols, who served as his part-time secretary. Lyndon convinced Evans that he should have another helper--an office boy, who could carry his messages and run other errands, and who could mind the office when Nichols was teaching. For this service, Evans gave Lyndon a salary of fifteen dollars per month. Thus, within five weeks of his arrival at college, Lyndon Johnson was living free over the president's garage and working in the president's office--in a job which hadn't existed before he got there.
Still, financial worries continued to plague Lyndon. He had to purchase books for class and pay for laundry, so he ate only two meals a day. In time, he arranged for free meals at a local boardinghouse in exchange for kitchen duties. Still, there was the ominous tuition bill, looming always ahead of him like an immovable brick wall. "Every time it came tuition-paying time, I would borrow money," Lyndon remembers, "and I couldn't pay it back."
By the summer of 1927, Lyndon had shot up to his full height, six-foot-three-and-a-half inches, and he was embarrassed to go to class with his ankles and wrists sticking out of his clothes. He decided to drop out and get a job. Hearing that his friend Ben Crider, an older man who had befriended him for years on the road crew, was now working in a cement factory, Lyndon wrote Crider: "I just can't make it, and I've got to drop out. I'm in debt forty-five dollars."
Knowing how much an education meant to the boy, Crider withdrew his entire bank account and sent it to Lyndon with the following note: "Well, I've got a job waiting for you. But I hope you won't come. They're breathing this dust that goes into the lungs and a lot of them are getting lung disease from it. I hope you don't have a future like that. ... I'm sending you all the money I got in the bank, hoping you'll stay in college."
Crider had sent eighty-one dollars. Decades later, Lyndon Johnson would recall: "I was the richest man on the campus! I took that money and I paid my debts, and I paid my bill for the next term."
Financial relief was temporary, however. At the end of the semester, Lyndon was again unable to pay the tuition for the upcoming term. Hearing that the tiny town of Cotulla, near the Mexican border, was in dire need of teachers, Lyndon made the decision to get a temporary teaching certificate and earn $125 a month. With the help of Evans, he was hired to teach the fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-grade classes at the Welhausen School. At twenty-one, Lyndon was overjoyed to be able to help his parents with their debts and to save money for college; and the superintendent was overjoyed to have a male teacher--and appointed Lyndon principal on the spot.
Most of Lyndon's students were poor Mexican-American children who spoke only Spanish. His classroom was hot and dusty. On his first day, when he went into the playground for recess, Lyndon found a dirt lot bare of both equipment and teachers. As difficult as it was, as lonely as he was for home, Lyndon was aware that his job represented another chance--a very important one--if he was to finish school and be somebody. He vowed to throw himself into the job, to try to be a good teacher, so that he would acquire an excellent recommendation for a job elsewhere.
The task was challenging. Johnson felt that his children's greatest handicap was their lack of familiarity with English, so he was strict about them learning it. "You can do anything you want with your lives," he told his students. "But you must be able to think and work. And you must learn English."
One of his students, Daniel Garcia (later a successful businessman and a member of the town council) remembers Lyndon's inspiring lectures on achieving the American Dream: "He used to tell us this country was so free that anyone could become president who was willing to work hard enough," Garcia said.
While in Cotulla, Lyndon budgeted his money carefully, still impassioned by his desire to complete college. By the end of the teaching year, he had enough savings to return to Southwest Texas State Teachers College. President Evans, glad to have him back, offered him the garage apartment again.
Getting into politics
In the year remaining before graduation, Lyndon plunged into his studies, working hard for his grades. At the same time, in the more distant shadows, his future as president was beginning to take shape. He entered into college politics, became the president of the journalism club, the editor of the school newspaper, and a winning debater. In July 1930, his father took him to a political rally where Lyndon sat on the stage next to the former governor, Pat Neff, who then was running for state railroad commission. In the midst of the all-day rally, Lyndon found himself impulsively jumping behind the speaker's podium and using all his best debate tactics to endorse Neff. By the time he left the platform, the crowd was cheering and clapping.
On August 17, 1930, Lyndon Baines Johnson received his Bachelor of Science degree with a major in history. For a year, he taught at high schools in Pearsall and Houston; but when Congressman Richard Kleberg asked Johnson to come to work as his secretary, Johnson eagerly moved to Washington, where he learned for over three years how Congress works. At twenty-three, he was elected the "Boss of the Little Congress," the organization of congressional assistants.
In 1934, on a trip home to Texas, Johnson met Claudia Alta Taylor (nicknamed Lady Bird), who was the child of Thomas Jefferson Taylor, the richest person in Harrison County. Lyndon decided almost instantly that she should be his wife. After an eleven-week whirlwind courtship conducted at long distance by telephone and mail, they were married in San Antonio. Their marriage was sealed with a $2.50 ring bought on the day of the wedding from Sears Roebuck.
In 1935, Lyndon resigned as secretary to Representative Kleberg to accept President Franklin D. Roosevelt's appointment as the Texas director of the National Youth Administration (NYA), a Roosevelt program designed to provide vocational training for unemployed youths and part-time employment for needy students. At twenty-six, he was the youngest of the forty-eight state directors, perhaps the youngest person ever entrusted with statewide authority for any New Deal program. The new job built the political relationships that would serve him in later years.
In February 1937, when the congressman from Johnson's home district died and a special election was called, Lyndon decided to run and Lady Bird gave him $10,000 for the campaign. The money allowed Johnson to be the first to declare his candidacy and to begin the grueling forty-two-day campaign that resulted in an easy win.
A few years later, Lady Bird--who would eventually become the first multimillionaire to assume the role of First Lady--invested her inheritance in an Austin radio station, which would later repeatedly endorse Lyndon for political offices. At twenty-eight he was elected to Congress--and was well on his way to the White House.
Lyndon's "plan for success" led him through almost twelve years in Congress, twelve years in the Senate, the vice presidency, the White House unexpectedly and tragically when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and finally, in 1964, into the presidency in his own right.
The poor boy who would be president had achieved the American Dream.
Archives, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum Web site, 4-8-05. www.lbjlib.utexas.edu.
Caro, Robert A., Means of Ascent: Lyndon Baines Johnson. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
Caro, Robert A., The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
Collins, David R., The Long-Legged Schoolteacher. Austin: Eakin Press, 1987.
Conkin, Paul K., Big Daddy From the Pedernales. Boston: Twayne Pub., 1986.
Koman, Rita G., "To leave this splendor for our grandchildren: Lady Bird Johnson, Environmentalist Extraordinaire," OAH Magazine of History 15 (Spring 2001).
Miller, Merle., Lyndon: An Oral Biography. NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1980.
Linda Owen is a freelance writer based in San Antonio, Texas.