Saturday, we began our day with a drive from the state capital to Johnson City, Texas to visit the boyhood home of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. The home sits in a National Park in Johnson’s name and encompasses a good portion of the area. The home was modest looking but was a nice home for the early twentieth century. Created in the style of a “dog-trot” home, the house was well furnished and equipped with the newest technology and modern conveniences of the time: telephone, running water, and expensive furniture uncommon in households of the 1920s-30s.
Our group was fascinated with one of Mrs. Johnson’s key teaching tools, a Charles Allen Gilbert work titled, “All is Vanity.” This piece is an illusion she used to teach her pupils to look beyond the surface and see what’s really there, a lesson not lost on LBJ the politician.
Once our tour of the home was over, we loaded up and went to find the “Texas White House,” the Johnson family-owned ranch used by President Johnson during his tenure in the White House. Johnson spent 25% percent of his presidency at the ranch working with staff and officials on policy issues. Of note, the parking lot had been converted from a runway President Johnson used for his Lockheed VC-140 jet, jokingly called “Air Force One Half” due to its smaller size.
The house itself progressed over time. The original one-room home was made of native limestone, but was steadily expanded throughout the Johnsons’ ownership. They had an array of art and artifacts including a letter from Texas President Sam Houston to one of the Johnson’s ancestors. Intriguingly, it was written from Huntsville, Texas. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed in the home, so we could not document the letter.
Other interesting features of the home included evidence of President Johnson’s obsession with information. In both the living room and the bedroom, Johnson had three televisions set up, one for each network. He even ensured that his seat in the dining room had a direct line to the televisions in the living room. Lady Bird Johnson was said to only have control of one TV, in her sitting room, to watch her favorite western show, “Gunsmoke.” On the other hand, she got the best bedroom, so perhaps it was a draw. It was neat to see how the Johnsons lived while in Texas and to see the surroundings in which much domestic and foreign policy was discussed.
Once we finished our tour of the home, we ate lunch at East Main Grill in Johnson City, choosing from a selection of sandwiches. We used this time to discuss what he had learned that morning and what we were going to do for the rest of the day, as well as a short rest before hitting the road again!
At the entrance to the Benini Studio and Sculpture Ranch we were greeted at the gate by the awe-inspiring “Marathon,” a massive Texas longhorn designed with three types of steel.
This sculpture was a true indication of what to expect. The six-mile trek to Benini’s actual studio was in itself an adventure, winding through Texas hill country, passing various sculptures. One included parts of a Walgreens’ sign entitled “He Kept Telling His God ‘Give Me A Sign’.” At the studio we were greeted by Lorraine Benini, the artist’s wife and business partner, who was a gracious hostess.
After a quick overview of the workings of the 140-acre property, she let us explore the art gallery at our leisure.
A recurring theme in Benini’s work, predominantly his sculptures, was exploiting available materials and transforming it to art, an object to prompt conversation and unveil the object’s true meaning.
Benini was kind enough to give us insight in to his work process and also offer a few wise words. He explained that his art was “controlled chaos,” but he truly prided himself with his “masterful and unique” ability to mix colors unlike any other artist.
One of the lessons that really hit home was his suggestion that life, like artistic inspiration, will force you to adapt, and accepting that fact will serve you well—whether as an artist in the Hill Country or as a legislator in the Texas Capitol.
A quick fifty-five mile drive later we found ourselves zipping up and down the streets of Austin on a “Haunted” Segway tour.
When we weren’t racing up and down the sidewalks, we were being terrified, or at least mildly agitated, by the different ghost stories spawned by tragic events in Austin’s history. One story told by our tour guide highlighted the tale of a suicide in the Driskill Hotel, a tragedy that has prompted tales of hauntings and ghostly sightings.
We brought the day to an end with an amazing dinner at Kerbey Lane Cafe, where we met with SHSU alum Blake Roach, who is employed in the office of Attorney General Greg Abbott. Blake gave us a more informal perspective of the career path many of us are pursuing. He explained how both the Junior Fellows, predecessor to the LEAP Center, and his attitude allowed him to make necessary connections to get ahead in his career. Blake’s words brought home the theme of the trip: to get ahead, you have to work hard, make connections, and develop professional skills.