It was 1965 and a late fall afternoon in the Hill Country of Texas when a surprise visitor dropped into the newsroom of The College Star, on the second floor of Old Main, a majestic, Victorian Gothic style building on the campus of Southwest Texas State College in San Marcos.

President Lyndon B. Johnson shakes hands with supporters in Des Moines in June 1966, about six months after he dropped in on student journalists at his alma mater in San Marcos, Texas. Yoichi R. Okamoto/LBJ Library via Wikimedia Commons

That afternoon the newsroom was unusually quiet. It was warm and I was falling asleep while typing a feature story. Our editor was engrossed in his own activities. I was a freshman majoring in journalism and was exhilarated to have landed a sweet spot on the newspaper staff.

Flipping idly through the pages of my slim reporter’s notebook, I heard the outer door open and there stood a massive man in the doorway. This man was Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, the man filled the room. LBJ was visiting his alma mater that day. He was born in a rundown farmhouse in the nearby town of Stonewall, Texas.

In 1927, when LBJ decided to get serious about earning a college degree, he enrolled at Southwest Texas State. Editor of The College Star was one of his jobs. I visualize his vitality dominating the newsroom. He probably used his brash Texas twang to get his reporters to work hard.

The college has undergone 17 name changes; when LBJ went there, it was a teaching college. He did become a teacher and taught in Houston before pursuing politics.

That day, standing with the staff, he mesmerized everyone. Of all the politicians I have met, LBJ was the most charismatic. He looked you in the eyes, he listened to you, he asked for your name, he asked you about yourself. His sturdy hand gripped mine. Long after he left there was electric shock running through us.

Maybe he had been signing the Higher Education Act of 1965 that day. It is reported he did return to San Marcos the day he signed it.

I don’t want to litigate the good or bad of LBJ’s presidency. The Vietnam War was a permanent stain.

What I do want to recognize about him was his advocacy for the poor, the marginalized, the aging and women. It is said he ordered his staff to hire at least five women for every team.

His legacy includes enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid.

Maybe it came from his childhood. His father was a down-at-the-heels failed politician and his mother a dreamer who, to her oldest child’s embarrassment, often forgot to do the laundry.

In an era of segregation, LBJ counted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as his friend and confidant, and he had Ku Klux Klan members arrested.

As a native Texan myself, I enjoy stories about his big personality. I’ll always remember that impromptu visit.

“The legitimate goal is for every American to receive exact and even and equal justice regardless of his race or color.”
– Lyndon Baines Johnson

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