The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Thursday, April 11, 1996               TAG: 9604090121


SERIES: 43rd Annual International Azalea Festival 


                                             LENGTH: Long  :  101 lines


In 1961, Patricia Bunin interviewed Queen Azalea VIII for the Granby High School Spectator. The young woman who was Queen Azalea VIII is now known as Lynda Bird Johnson Robb. As the 43rd International Azalea Festival approaches, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, Queen Azalea VIII, shares memories of her reign with Bunin.

``Do you even like azaleas?'' I asked Lynda Bird Johnson just days before she was crowned queen of the Azalea Festival in April 1961.

In the all-knowing way of high school journalists, I assured her the question was strictly ``off the record.'' She flashed me a mischievous smile, and we started to laugh.

A very private person, even at 16, the daughter of then vice president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson, rose to her royalty role with poise and good humor. She even took time for an interview with me, in my role as co-editor of the Granby High School Spectator, during her visit to my school.

Just shy of 35 years later, speaking to me by telephone from her Northern Virginia home, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb confided that she is still a private person.

``I'd talk you out of writing this article if I could,'' said the former first lady of Virginia and wife of Sen. Charles Robb, D-Va.

I could hear that same mischievous smile in her voice.

Putting the time frame since the last conversation in perspective, she told me about meeting a recent Azalea queen.

``When I told her that I had been queen myself in 1961, she responded, `Oh my, I wasn't even born then!','' Robb said, laughing.

The passage of more than three decades has convinced Robb that, indeed, ``Memory is a faulty manager.''

Nevertheless, certain images of the festival stand out in her mind.

``The worst part was coming home and having to put away all those pretty clothes,'' she said. ``I felt like Cinderella.''

Although the clothes are gone, there are numerous personal mementos that help to keep the memories alive. As we talked, for example, she told me she was looking at a silver bowl that was presented to her for serving as Azalea queen. She has always kept it in her dining room.

``I loved being Azalea queen,'' she said. ``It was so exciting.''

What made the experience even more memorable was that it was so difficult for her to get time off from National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C., to participate in the eight-day event. Apparently, the school was very strict about attendance, and Robb's father, LBJ, had to intercede in her behalf.

She was glad he did.

Because the festival coincided with the 50th anniversary of naval aviation, the Blue Angels did a flyover that Robb said she will never forget. She still has the sweetheart pin they gave her: miniature aviator wings with the face of a clock upside down.

``That way,'' she said, ``You can look down and see the time when you are wearing it.''

``Do you remember ever being scared while you were queen?,'' I asked, recalling how calm she had seemed to me at the time.

``Terrified,'' she responded, ``but everyone was so kind to me, it made it easier.''

She has particularly fond memories of Paul Hirschbiel, the festival chairman that year, and his wife Mable, whom she described as the warmest people you could imagine.

My article in the Spectator mentioned that their daughter, Judy, a fellow Granby student, introduced Lynda Bird Johnson to the student body when she visited the school.

One of Robb's best memories is her father placing the crown on her head at the queen's coronation in the Norfolk Botanical Garden.

He also crowned her sister, Luci Baines Johnson (Turpin), who was the Azalea queen in 1965 while her father was president.

``My father had such a good sense of humor,'' Robb said. ``He sent funny telegrams to each of us when we became queen.''

That sentiment brought Robb to her favorite subject: family

``We have three almost perfect children,'' she said with pride about her daughters.

Lucinda, 28, graduated from Princeton University and works at the National Archives in Washington. Catherine, 26, graduated from the University of Virginia and currently attends law school at the University of Texas. Jennifer, 18, will graduate from high school this year and go on to college, but she doesn't know yet which one.

``The girls get along so well with each other,'' she said. ``We are all very close.

``My family is the most important thing to me.''

I said goodbye a little nostalgically, hoping I wouldn't have to wait another 35 years to talk to her.

The gracious lady who had charmed me during the 1961 interview had done so again. MEMO: A transplanted Norfolkian, Patricia Bunin is a free-lance writer who

lives in Altadena, Calif. ILLUSTRATION: Photos

At age 16 and with her father, Lyndon Baines Johnson, by her side,

Lynda Bird Johnson was the Azalea Festival queen in 1961.

Lynda Bird Johnson Robb in a more recent photo.

by CNB