Helen White Williams, 81, a longtime personal assistant in the Lyndon B. Johnson household whose multitudinous duties included cook, maid, scheduler, travel aide, wardrobe coordinator, family confidante and surrogate mother to the Johnson daughters, died Feb. 25 of a heart attack at Washington Hospital Center. She had had knee replacement surgery the day before at Sibley Memorial Hospital.
Mrs. Williams and her husband, Eugene, went to work for then-Sen. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson in 1950 after responding to a classified ad in an Austin newspaper. The two families lived together from 1950 until 1961, when the Williamses bought their own house in the District. They stayed in the Johnsons' employment until President Johnson left the White House in 1969.
Helen White Williams and her husband worked for the Johnsons until he left the White House.
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"She was just a surrogate mother to us, and we loved her deeply," Lynda Johnson Robb said yesterday.
Robb recalled her 60th birthday celebration in 2004, a costume party where Mrs. Williams arrived as Little Bo Peep. "She had such a wonderful love of life," Robb said.
In a 1974 oral history interview with the LBJ Library, Mrs. Williams recalled taking the Johnson girls to a movie theater in the District in the 1950s and being turned away because she was black. Back home, Lynda was still crying as she explained to her father what had happened.
"Of course, he looked startled, and then he apologized to me, because he felt like he had gotten me into this situation," Mrs. Williams recalled.
"It would always be upsetting to me to hear some black person say an unkind word about him, because I knew how sincere he was about people having equal rights," she said in the oral history interview.
Johnson, in the years he was trying to steer civil rights legislation through a balky, southern-dominated Senate, often told a story about how the Williamses and Zephyr Wright, the Johnson family's African American cook, drove the Johnson family car on the three-day, 1,300-mile trip from Washington to Austin when Congress adjourned, and back again when lawmakers reconvened. One year, he wanted them to take the family dog, Little Beagle Johnson, but they were reluctant. After Johnson pressed Mrs. Williams's husband, he explained why. "You see, what I'm saying is that a colored man's got enough trouble getting across the South on his own, without having a dog along," he said.
In his memoirs, Johnson wrote that his discovery of what his three African American employees experienced every time they drove back to Texas was, for him, an awakening to the grating indignity of discrimination.
The Williamses continued making the twice-yearly trip, but Little Beagle Johnson flew with the family.