Liz Carpenter, who was an aide to Lyndon Johnson when he was vice president, and press secretary to Lady Bird Johnson during her White House years, died March 20, at the age of 89.
Walter Cronkite once described her this way: "Liz Carpenter is much more than an American original: she is an American and Texas original. Her inside stories of our nation’s political life over the last half-century are priceless."
I met Liz Carpenter through a book she wrote: "Unplanned Parenthood: The Confessions of a Seventysomething Surrogate Mother."
Published by Random House, Unplanned Parenthood describes how Liz took over the parenting of three teenagers when she was 71 and a widow. The teens were the children of her deceased brother, and the experience of parenting them was both funny and moving. As I read, I found myself laughing out loud and then a few pages later, drying tears.
She began her book by describing an early childhood experience. "First you should know that I was bitten by a mad dog when I was six. So right off I got used to unexpected events in my life."
The rabid dog bit both her and her brother, so both had to endure the painful medical procedure to protect them from getting rabies.
In the book she wrote: "The experience of the dog bite affected George and me in different ways. George became a rabid Republican and I became a rabid Democrat."
A graduate of the University of Texas, she went to Washington DC when she was 22, to cover the White House of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt for 26 small Michigan newspapers. In 1960, she went to work for the Johnsons.
She was in the motorcade in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated. She wrote the brief speech Mr. Johnson delivered at the foot of Air Force One when he returned to DC as the 36th president.
In the 1970s, she focused on women’s causes, working for the Equal Rights Amendment and helping establish the National Women’s Political Caucus.
And she became a surrogate mother to her nieces and nephew. She also worked in PR, wrote books, campaigned for democratic candidates and causes, and injected much-appreciated humor into all her endeavors.
I read her book and enjoyed it so much that I wrote her a letter of praise for Unplanned Parenthood and also for her efforts on behalf of women.
At 88, she wrote back: "Thanks for your kind note. It is heartwarming to know you enjoyed my book. Liz Carpenter"
Along with her hand-written letter, she enclosed a photograph of herself and Barack Obama on the campaign trail. She was in a wheel chair, and he was bending down close to her. Printed on the photograph were the words: Vote Democratic! Love, Liz and Barack!
The photo made me laugh. There she was, 88 and in a wheelchair, and she was campaigning for Democrats.
She and her high school sweetheart, Les Carpenter, were married for 30 years. They raised a daughter and a son.
When I read in the New York Times that Liz Carpenter had died, I felt sad. And then I felt grateful that I’d had the chance to meet her through her funny, moving, wonderful writing.
Liz Carpenter died during Women’s History Month, appropriate timing for someone who lived fully, gave generously and cared deeply about women’s rights.
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