Through his ascending political leadership in Congress from the late 1930s and well into his presidency in the 1960s, Lyndon Baines Johnson laid the groundwork for Austin and the Texas Hill Country to become the dynamic and fascinating place it is today. I don’t think it would’ve happened as quickly without the worldwide attention and prestige that the thirty-sixth president of the United States brought to a government-paycheck, small college town with no Fortune 500 companies, no large private industry, no major airport, and only one TV station—which was owned by him and his wonderful wife.
It was my good fortune to have gone to work for the Johnsons at KTBC when I was still a student at the University of Texas (UT). My relationship with their family lasted for the next fifty-plus years and continues today. Working directly with LBJ—“The Man” himself—was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it certainly had its ups and downs. I’ve lost count of how many times I was chewed out by the Master of Butt Chewings. But on several occasions I was with him when history came knocking on the door.
I was with Vice President Johnson when he visited South Vietnam for the first time in 1961. He reassured President Ngô Đình Diệm that the four hundred Green Beret “special advisers” the United States was giving him at that very moment would help him destroy the Viet Cong once and for all.
I worked with former president Johnson hands-on, and in minute detail, when he asked me to chair the committee that planned the dedication ceremony for his presidential library in 1971.
I oversaw his burial service at the Johnson ranch on a cold, rainy winter’s day. And as the Johnson family spokesperson several years later, I rode in the funeral cortege when the hearse carried Mrs. Johnson to her resting place beside her husband. Thousands of people lined the city streets and highway to the ranch, removing their hats, placing their hands over their hearts, and bowing their heads out of respect for that remarkable lady.
During my career as a news reporter, I was involved in some of the most riveting and exhilarating experiences imaginable. I’ve told these stories for decades in lively conversations with friends, and they’ve always urged, “Neal, you need to write these stories down.” On one occasion, an influential thought-leader told me I had an obligation to do so. While prize-winning journalists and historians have written volumes about Lyndon Johnson, few of the stories you’re about to read have made it into print. Everyone has heard about LBJ talking to aides and cabinet members while he was using the toilet, but what living soul, besides me, experienced something even worse?
Many of us at age eighty-plus can look back on our lives and recall a seminal moment that shook us, enlightened us, changed us, and defined who we would become. That happened to me on August 1, 1966, when I was a thirty-year-old news director at KTBC in downtown Austin and I overheard a dispatch on the station’s police scanner saying that gunshots were being fired from the University of Texas Tower. I will forever be known as the reporter who drove to campus in a big red station wagon and was the only one to broadcast live during those terrifying ninety minutes for the world to hear as that tragedy was unfolding.
Recently I spoke to a UT class about my experiences on that blazing hot day in the summer of 1966, and we walked together to where I was hunkered down with a radio mic in my hand, talking nonstop as the sniper’s bullets were whizzing all around. Even though I don’t recall being rattled at the time of the incident, I was surprised at how emotional I became as I told my story to students whose parents are too young to remember that dark moment, when the first mass school shooter in American history took deadly aim at so many innocent lives.
I teared up as we stood at the red granite memorial to the victims who died that day, and to my surprise, some of the students teared up as well. Their generation is keenly aware of mass gun violence and how it destroys entire communities of the young and vulnerable. The Tower tragedy is only one of the many stories I relate firsthand in this chronicle.
In my early experiences as a news reporter, the monumental figure of Lyndon Baines Johnson loomed large and only an arm’s length away—sometimes as my employer, sometimes as the politician standing next to me as I shook President John F. Kennedy’s hand. Like the aides and confidants surrounding LBJ in his public years, I saw the best of him and the worst, and almost always “with the bark off.” I can still feel that long arm wrapped around my shoulders when he would draw me in and say, “Neal, there’s somebody I want you to meet.” Or “there’s something I want you to do.” I could bet the ranch that in the next few moments, something extraordinary was going to happen.
From With the Bark Off
Briscoe Center for American History
The University of Texas at Austin
Distributed by Tower Books, an Imprint of the University of Texas Press
Copyright © 2021 by Neal Spelce. All rights reserved.