Strolling from room to room in the meticulously restored boyhood home of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Sandy Hodges cannot help but feel wistful.
As a U.S. park ranger in the rural community where Johnson grew up, she is a fountain of stories about the 36th president's early years in central Texas's Hill Country. And she tells of those times not in the rote voice of a tour guide but in loving tones, for they are her family's stories as well.
Hodges, 54, is a native of this tiny crossroads burg, named for the president's grandfather, a frontiersman who built a cabin here in the 1860s. Her father graduated from Johnson City High School with Lyndon Johnson and four others in 1924. Her mother and maternal uncles were childhood pals of the Johnson siblings. Hodges's mother was a frequent guest at the Johnson home, a modest Victorian with a picket fence and eight airy rooms on its one floor.
Like the cabin, also restored, the home is part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, the only place Hodges has worked in her 26 years with the National Park Service.
"Whenever I come in here, I always see Momma as a little girl, with her long black hair," Hodges said recently, standing near the cast-iron stove in the kitchen. Her mother and Johnson's sister Rebekah were inseparable. They would wash dishes together. "The dishes would be all piled up," Hodges said, gesturing at the old sink. "I can just see them standing there right now, two little girls giggling, saying, 'Okay, we've done enough,' and then running off."
Hodges's mother is 90, a nursing-home resident at Lyndon B. Johnson Medical Center here. She rooms with her lifelong friend, Kitty Clyde Leonard, 91, who was Johnson's first love as a teenager.
With its period furniture and decor, the century-old house looks much as it did when the rambunctious young Johnson lived in it, from 1913, when he was 5, until the mid-1920s. His father was a farmer, barber and six-term state legislator. His mother, a college graduate, was perhaps the most cultured woman in Johnson City, then a rustic farm community with dirt streets, no electricity and a few hundred residents.
Hodges walked into the parlor, where Johnson's mother gave elocution lessons to her children and those of Johnson City's struggling farm families, including Hodges's mother. In the master bedroom, Hodges explained that this was where Johnson's father huddled with political visitors, while young Lyndon often crouched outside the closed door, eavesdropping.
When Johnson was elected vice president in 1960 after nearly a quarter-century in Congress, Hodges was a freshman at his alma mater, Johnson City High.
Hodges had heard her family's stories about Texas's favorite son. But she did not immerse herself in the details of Johnson's formative years until 1973, when she joined the Park Service as a guide at the historic site, a few months after his death.
Hodges interviewed folks who knew him as a youth and read virtually everything she could find about her home town during that bygone era, when Johnson City was little changed from the 1860s. It was LBJ, during his years in the House and Senate, who helped usher the Hill Country into the 20th century, delivering big highway and electrification projects to Texas.
The more stories she heard about Johnson's lasting affinity for this community and its people, Hodges said, the more she came to admire him, and the more she grew to love her job.
"I think people [elsewhere in the country] don't realize what a kind human being he really was," she said, standing on the back porch of the old house. "I know he was a very complicated personality. And I know he could get very angry." But for anyone in Johnson City, "when the chips were down, Lyndon Baines Johnson was always there for them."
LBJ is buried on the 2,000-acre ranch he acquired in 1952--the Texas White House, as it came to be known during his presidency--about 15 miles west of here. Lady Bird Johnson, 88, often spends weekends and holidays there. Hodges, who lives with her husband on an adjacent small farm, said the former first lady is a neighbor in the fullest sense.
"When she calls, she'll always say, 'This is your good friend and neighbor, Lady Bird!' " Hodges said. She said her mother told her, 'That's the way the president was, too.' "
CAPTION: Sandy Hodges, a park ranger, comes from LBJ's home town in Texas, where her parents grew up with the Johnson family.