Luci Baines Johnson: Our Children Are Our Future

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Article by Lene Saint-Orens / Image by Sabrina Bean Photography

It’s a cool morning in Austin, Texas, and I’m on my way to the office and home of Luci Baines Johnson. I’m invited to finish up the interview we’ve started a week prior at the 4th Annual LBJ100 Bike Ride, just outside of Johnson City. I couldn’t wait to engage in more conversation about safe foods for our community and to learn about her views of raising healthy children, while managing a high-profile career and being an advocate for education and health.

Covering the 4th Annual LBJ100 Bike Ride was an amazing experience, not only because we had the pleasure of touring the “Ranch” and the “White House”, but also because we were allowed to take a peek behind closed doors and meet family and friends. Luci Baines Johnson’s parents, widely known as Lady Bird and former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, generously gave the LBJ Ranch to the National Park Service, and the LBJ100 Ride was founded to ‘Preserve History.’

Surrounded by nature, I very much understand the love for the preserved space, and engagement to protect its wildlife and history. We had such a great day at the ranch, and were excited to meet again for more conversation, hopefully around the kitchen counter.

Having been called the Food Police for many years among my friends and colleagues, curiosity struck when I heard we carry the same “Nickname”—I wonder how different our parenting styles are, how her exercise regimen and culinary routine stay present when traveling and managing a busy career, and if it’s true that staff is exercising with her in the wee-morning hours and even competing about who lost the most weight in the shortest time frame.

We are greeted by Luci Baines Johnson’s assistant and offered to enjoy the view from the terrace while we set up our equipment. I hear the sound of chopping in the kitchen, otherwise it’s quiet—soothing surroundings, nothing points to hectic and stress. A grand piano—endless books—pictures with the writing “Lady Bird” and other Presidential Memoires in the form of framed photographs or letters are displayed in the entry way. A pink post-it catches my eye, taped to a door. Written on it is “Love, Annie.” Modern Art—sweet smell of cooking interrupts my thoughts, and then Luci Baines Johnson walks in. She greets us warmly, wearing a cycling outfit. “Good morning, I remembered you’d come today, so I thought I’ll wear something to fit the theme.” She’s full of energy. It’s Tuesday morning, her workout day with trainer Maurice. I ask her if she got her workout in already? “Oh yes, we work out at 6:30 a.m.—I feel great, but that was more duty than delight.” She’s motivated, and carries herself with incredible strength. I feel empowered to ask more questions, such as ‘Who’s chopping in the kitchen, do you like to cook?’—“Oh yes,” she answers, “I love to cook, but today I have a little help as we’re preparing to travel. I love to cook when I can. It’s such a cathartic experience for me. Come take a look at my fridge.” Really? We walk through the living room and into the spacious kitchen.

She opens the fridge and it’s a heaven for organic chefs. Absolutely nothing processed. Organic produce, prepared snacks, and a full drawer of greens. She then tells us about her Vitamix, a bit expensive but worth saving up for (that is, when you’re the writer of this article), and about her motivation for building a staff fitness center just a few floors down where she works—“ The primary reason I built a gym in our home is because I care deeply about my husband and our staff and I felt if we had a convenient place to exercise we would all be more likely to do it. Our staff is like extended family and fast friends. So I like to think my main motivation was a loving one. But I realize that a part of my decision may have also been enlightened self interest too. When you are a small office, as we are, it is rough when folks are out sick. I knew if we all exercised more regularly we’d more likely be healthier, happier, less stressed and more productive. Some of my staff has lost over 50 pounds. And they look and feel great and rightly so! I am so proud of them and grateful to them. To workout together and witness their accomplishments and be inspired by them is a return on my investment that cannot be measured! We all have less sick days, a greater sense of comraderie and great joy in each other’s accomplishments. And of course when you are exercising at 6:30 in the morning misery loves company! One of the greatest assets is my employees, so I want to be sure I invest in them and empower them.” She sure walks that talk.

What secrets does she have to stay healthy? “I swim, and love to cycle on weekends, but I wouldn’t say I have secrets for staying fit. I recognized long ago that there was truth in my mother’s childhood admonition to me—‘you are what you eat.’ As I have aged, I’ve come to realize that if I don’t eat right and don’t exercise, I have to face the consequences. I don’t feel as good, and as a result, I don’t look as good and I am not as happy as I am when I otherwise exercise and take care of proper nutrition.”

We discuss plastic bottles vs. aluminum bottles, organic gardening (she purchased a little organic herb-planter for her husband’s birthday), and how important it is to grow the local food culture. It’s less about the discipline for her, and more about a Lifestyle, that helps her to enjoy the gift of living and be a gift to life.

When her mother fell very ill, she was trying to be her primary caregiver, while she helped manage her family’s business, and be a loving presence for her children and grandchildren. “There was a strong temptation to eliminate exercise from my routine in order to gain an extra hour in the day. But every time I did that, I regretted it later, because when I skipped the exercise and didn’t eat right, I didn’t find myself as productive, relaxed and at peace with life—and,” she laughs, “I probably am nicer to be around when sticking to that routine.” We all struggle to keep our schedules and juggle family responsibilities, and that certainly takes its toll, especially among low-income families who struggle more than ever with the consequences of convenient, industrialized foods and rising cost of healthier food options; and whose children are more at risk for serious health diseases later in life.

“Childhood obesity isn’t an easy issue. Much of it is tied to access to and understanding of healthy affordable choices. Our Children are our future—if we put garbage into them, we are more likely to see the consequences down the line. I applaud Mrs. Obama for awakening our nation to the importance of reducing childhood obesity.” We talk about local organizations, such as Whole Kids Adventure, and their Hero Fit program, who are stepping up to educate families and their children about healthy choices, and helping to reduce childhood obesity.

And she knows all too well how a serious illness can strike quickly—just last year, Luci Baines Johnson was admitted to the ICU with a rare and serious disorder. How did she bounce back from this illness? “Aside from having wonderful family, physicians, nurses, friends and physical therapists that made such a difference in my life, I have no doubt that being in good physical condition has helped and was a blessing beyond measure. Balance is my intent, but of course not always my achievement. When I’m traveling now, I try to stay within my ideal weight, and grab healthy prepared snacks from home.” Her favorite snack is- “Yoghurt. I try to eat my biggest meal at breakfast, less at lunch and my smallest meal at an early dinner. And when I allow myself starchy foods I need for them to be earlier in the day or I pay for it on the scale. I sometimes get carried away and so I’ve been called the Food Police a lot. But so are you. We have to watch that.”

When it comes to motivating her children to stay healthy, she explains that they’ve all mastered some form of exercise from boxing to marathons to a litany of team sports and frankly they are far more my inspiration than I am theirs! She tries to entice them to cycle, work out or swim with her because she loves their companionship. However, these are not their athletic choices, and, “Their skill levels on their worst days far exceed my best.” Hard to believe, I’ve just seen Luci Baines Johnson a week earlier complete a 30-mile ride, greeting supporters and staff shortly after, before she took time to mingle with our Whole Lifestyle crew, and head back to her granddaughter for an afternoon of play and family time. “My mother said that God forgot to put in my “self preservation” mechanism—so rest has never been my long suit.” “Parenting was always my greatest love and most important job, and I try so very hard to be worthy of my children and grandchildren. I adored being a room mother, field trip driver, school volunteer of all stripes. I served on a school board, in the little league concession stand, and adored having my children’s friends in my home and abundance. Public service was no more
optional than oxygen for our family. So it was a way of life, not a duty.”

She’s humble, and kind—and while she states that she’s the one blessed, I have to admit that I walk away feeling blessed, encouraged and empowered by her honest stories, and gratitude for supporters of her love for nature and family legacy. “I’ve learned that if you keep a healthy lifestyle, you can be a healthier presence in the lives of those you love.” And then I remember that little pink post-it note, and have to smile as she waves good-bye. It doesn’t matter how high profile your life is, or how busy your schedule, if at the end of the day you get to cook with your grandchild, while making a difference in her life, it’s all worth it.

Find out more information about the Annual LBJ100 Bike Ride at: www.lbj100bicycletour.org

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