THE BLOG

The City of Austin Honors a Distinguished Texan

03/09/2015 03:56 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2015

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The resolution "approved on consent" by the Austin, Texas, City Council on Feb. 26 simply reads:

The City's Park and Recreation Department Main Office is hereby renamed "Jack W. Robinson Parks and Recreation Department Main Office."

But behind that simple resolution is the story of a man who started out as manager of Austin's beloved and historic Zilker Park. Of a man who -- like his father and family did -- lived in the park's tiny, stone caretaker's cottage and who would eventually become director of Austin's sprawling Parks and Recreation Department and move into the building that now bears his name.

It is the story of a man whom I was proud to call "my friend Jack" during the last four years of his life and who, sadly, left us a little less than a year ago, as the bluebonnets and other Texas wildflowers that he loved so much were beginning to fade.

It is also the story of a man who enjoyed the personal trust and friendship of Lady Bird Johnson, a man who shared with the former first lady a deep love of the outdoors and a passion for protecting and beautifying the Austin and Texas landscape.

As such, Jack Robinson became the first lady's right-hand man for the beautification of the Austin Town Lake (now the Lady Bird Lake) Hike and Bike Trail and instrumental in the founding of the famous Wildflower Center in Austin.

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Parks and Recreation Director Jack W. Robinson discusses plans for the beautification of Austin Town Lake with Lady Bird Johnson (Photo courtesy Robinson family)

More than 30 letters from the former first lady to Jack Robinson, some handwritten, reflect the growing sense of reliance, respect and friendship between Lady Bird and Robinson -- a close official and personal relationship that started in 1972 and that would continue for more than a dozen years.

A Dec. 14, 1982, letter to Robinson, in which Lady Bird thanks him for agreeing to join the board of the nascent National Wildflower Research Center -- today the Wildflower Center -- reflects how much the First Lady confided in and appreciated Robinson.

Writing that the idea of such a Center had been "alluringly going round and round" in her mind for several years, Lady Bird adds "I finally decided to 'throw my hat over the windmill' and celebrate my seventieth birthday by daring to try to establish a National Wildflower Research Center." She tells Robinson how "full of excitement," she plans to announce the news on her birthday, the following week. And oh, by the way, "...you will be here for my birthday party the night of Dec. 22. Right?" she pens at the bottom of the letter.

Today, 32 years later, the daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson echoes similar fond sentiments and admiration for the late Jack Robinson.

In a letter in support of naming the Austin Parks Department main office for Robinson, Luci Baines Johnson recalls her mother's fondness for Robinson and her gratitude for his efforts to beautify the Texas capital. Johnson writes how proud Lady Bird was when her friend Jack agreed to serve on her "next love," the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center's board. "She leaned on his experience and valued it as none other," Luci Baines Johnson writes.

Luci Baines Johnson also remembers her mother saying, "I was just a part of a merry band of citizens committed to making [the Hike and Bike Trail] a place we can all enjoy for generations." Luci Baines Johnson playfully adds, "Well, if Mother was in the band with [former Austin] Mayor and Mrs. Butler, Jack was the drum major."

And so it goes. Letter after letter praises the accomplishments and the legacy of a distinguished Texan, a superb public servant, an outstanding manager, a loyal colleague, a loving family man, a good friend.

Warren Struss, former Austin parks director, refers to the Parks and Recreation Department as "The House that Jack Built."

Now, finally, the building that houses that institution bears the name of its builder.

As we approach springtime in Texas and the first anniversary of Jack's departure, I remember how carefully Jack put together for me a mixture of seeds of his favorite wildflowers -- bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, black-eyed Susans, Texas buttercups, prairie winecups -- and meticulously instructed me on how, where and when to sow them.

With the ample rainfall we have had this fall and winter in Texas, I know they'll bloom prolifically this spring and, along with a building that bears his name, will fondly remind me of my friend Jack.

Lead photo: Jack William Robinson in April 2014, a few weeks before his death, admiring the wildflowers in his backyard. (Photo courtesy Robinson family)

A version of this article appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Mar. 5, 2015.