The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stay in school or get married? In 1965, the president’s daughter had to choose.

Former president Lyndon B. Johnson's daughter, Luci Johnson, delivered the commencement address at Georgetown's School of Nursing and Health Studies May 19. (Video: Georgetown University)
Placeholder while article actions load

The question that changed the course of her life was asked in the solarium of the White House. It was 1965 and Luci Baines Johnson, the president’s daughter, was looking at her boyfriend. He had just asked her to marry him.

She could say yes. She could commit to him. She loved him, after all.

Or she could continue her courses at Georgetown University, where she was studying to become a nurse. And that, she loved, too.

Doing both was not an option. Georgetown had a policy that forbade nursing students — all of whom were women — from marrying.

At 19 years old, after just two semesters of school, Johnson chose marriage. She never received a degree from Georgetown.

That is, until Saturday, when she was invited back to campus to serve as commencement speaker for Georgetown’s School of Nursing and Health Studies. Fifty-two years after she dropped out of college, Johnson, 70, was awarded an honorary doctorate.

“If I look like a kid on Christmas morning, it’s because that’s the way I feel right now,” she said to begin her speech. “How I wish my parents could have heard the words you said about me.”

The crowd before her included 105 undergraduates, 78 of them women. To their generation, the idea that a person can be both a wife and a worker is a foregone conclusion. And though the nursing profession is now considered a family-friendly career choice, the nursing school’s dean, Patricia Cloonan, said marriage is rarely on her students’ minds this early in life.

But in Johnson’s time, “many women understood that marriage was a life-changing decision, to have babies, not to work and to commit oneself to one’s spouse,” said labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris.

This was especially true for nurses, whose roles were considered to be “vocations” more than professions. Georgetown’s no-marriage policy was not unique. Many nursing programs, then run by hospitals rather than universities, required women to live in convent-like dormitories and be on call at any time of night. Sex out of wedlock was grounds for dismissal.

The assumption, said University of Pennsylvania nursing history professor Julie Fairman, was that “you couldn’t concentrate and be a good nurse if you were married and had other obligations.”

But by the time Johnson entered college, that thinking was beginning to change. The women’s movement was gaining traction, buoyed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed by Johnson’s father, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the cultural expectations of women were about to radically change. Georgetown, a Catholic institution, would abolish its policy in 1967.

By then, Johnson had already married and left the District.

Her reasoning went like this: The Johnson family had been thrust into a dutiful spotlight at the moment John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Along with her older sister Lynda Bird, Luci Baines was suddenly a first daughter.

When she was 16 years old, Secret Service agents became her shadow. Life magazine photographed her doing her homework. When she accidentally let a fire get out of control inside the White House, her name was in the headlines. She came to call her new home “the Great White Zoo.”

Then, in 1965, she met Patrick Nugent. A friend brought him along to Johnson’s high school graduation party. He was tall and blond, a college boy attending Marquette University. When she was allowed to visit him at school, she wore a wig and told people her name was Amy. For the first time in years, she had a taste of normalcy.

He proposed that November.

“That temptation to live in a house and raise your children away from the public stage was very compelling,” Johnson explained in an interview last week. “And so I accepted, knowing I would leave D.C., and leave Georgetown, but feeling like maybe this would be a chance for me to be me.”

First, she had to get through the wedding. There was no expectation that her nuptials would be an intimate affair for family and friends, like the weddings of Chelsea Clinton or Jenna Bush. Johnson’s parents had far less concern about their children’s privacy than later first families, said presidential historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony. They sent her on a 26-state campaign tour. The press considered her to be a full-fledged public figure.

“Her wedding was an event the nation shared in,” Anthony said. “It was a gargantuan extravaganza.”

A designer dress. A nine-foot train. Ten bridesmaids wearing Pepto-Bismol-pink veils. Johnson was the first president’s child to have a wedding reception at the White House since Alice Roosevelt, and the first to have her wedding broadcast on television. According to Life magazine, an estimated 55 million people tuned in, more than for any inauguration in history.

When it was over, Johnson and Nugent moved to Texas, her family’s home state. She had four children in seven years. When Nugent enlisted in the military and deployed to Vietnam, Johnson periodically returned to the White House, where she says she could hear protest chants outside her bedroom window: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many boys did you kill today?”

The turmoil and progress that defined her father’s presidency would come to shape the rest of her life. It was Luci Baines who would stay in Texas, working to preserve his legacy. Her marriage to Nugent ended after 12 years, but she remarried in 1984 to British banker Ian Turpin. Together, they now run LBJ Holding Co., the family business her mother, Lady Bird, founded in 1942.

All the while, Johnson stayed involved with the nursing profession. She served on nursing school boards, became a hospital trustee and testified before Congress on behalf of advanced-practice nurses.

Although she did, at age 49, earn a bachelor’s degree in communications, the nagging feeling about opportunities she left at Georgetown remained.

“There were regrets,” she said. “A sense of what might have been, what I wish I had completed.”

As she revisited her past to prepare for her speech, Johnson told the students Saturday, she made a visit to the London museum dedicated to Florence Nightingale, the woman known as the founder of modern nursing. Nightingale, Johnson explained, was fighting against institutions and traditions that wanted to limit what she could do.

Johnson looked up from her notes and into the crowd. “But she didn’t let them restrain her,” she said. “All of you must be as motivated as Florence Nightingale was.”

The end of her speech was met with a standing ovation. Then she returned to her chair on the stage. The professors beside her sat quietly, their hands in their laps, as the students were called up to receive their diplomas. Johnson, meanwhile, loudly clapped for every one of the graduates, now counting herself among them.