WASHINGTON — The scrawled message was simple and heartfelt.
"Mrs. Johnson. We love you and will miss you. You are a great American. Rest in peace."
The brief tribute from Rodney Johnson of Arlington, Va., was the first entry in a book of remembrances at the entrance of Lady Bird Park, a serene tree-shaded island along the Potomac River near the Pentagon and Arlington National Cemetery.
Few places in the nation's capital embody the spirit of Lady Bird Johnson more than the island park that was named in her honor in 1968 as a lasting monument to her efforts to beautify Washington and the nation. On the day after her death at age 94, visitors began gathering there to pay their respects to the gentle lady who spruced up America.
"Everywhere you went and saw wild flowers, you thought of Lady Bird," said Johnson, a 58-year-old administration official at George Washington University. "She was so gentle and so loving."
The National Park Service erected a tent at the entrance of the park and posted memory books on tables for visitors to scribble their reflections. Park service officials also plan a "moment of remembrance" at the park at 1 p.m. EDT Sunday to honor the former first lady and her influential support of the national park system.
"A good friend of the National Park Service has passed away," park service director Mary A. Bomar said Thursday.
What was originally known as Columbia Island became Lady Bird Park after the first lady's Committee for a More Beautiful Capital adorned the secluded strip of land with hundreds of dogwood trees and flowers. By pushing a button on a marker at one of the entrances, visitors can listen as the former first lady, in her timeless lilting accent, recalls how much the island meant to her and her president-husband.
"This site was a special place for us," she said in the taped message. "Many times through the years, as Lyndon and I drove from Texas, we paused here to drink in the beauty of our capital city's panoramic skyline."
Over the years, the park also became a special place for thousands of tourists and Washingtonians, many of whom escaped there for a moment of comfort from high-pressure jobs. Officials from the Pentagon often picnic there. Soldiers or Marines use it as transit point on their jogging routes.
A centerpiece of the park is the 17-acre Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove, which was dedicated in 1976 after the president's death. The site includes a monolith of Texas granite surrounded by a serpentine pattern of walks and trails.
Leo and Roxane Schmittel of nearby Alexandria, Va., used to bring their two daughters to the park. Now they bring their grandchildren. Roxane Schmittel choked back tears as she recalled meeting the former first lady at a reception.
"I thought she was so beautiful," she recalled. "She was much more beautiful than her pictures. She was a lovely woman."