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Presidential Powerboat

After extensive restoration, LBJ’s prized 1965 craft is back on the water

It was a cold, icy early morning at our ranch in the Texas Hill Country. I had finished several cups of coffee and read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal online. Because of the ice, I did not want to venture outside until the sun came up, so I started looking at boats for sale on Craigslist. I saw an ad for Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 Glastron motorboat, and I thought, wow, owning LBJ’s boat and keeping it on Lake LBJ would be pretty cool. The more I read, the more intrigued I was—especially because my grandmother was a friend of LBJ’s.

When my wife, Gay, got up and sat down by me with her coffee, I asked, “How would you like to restore LBJ’s 1965 motorboat and keep it on Lake LBJ?” She said, “It actually sounds like fun!”

I contacted the owner in Houston. After a conversation, it was clear that the boat had issues—like no motor. It was in bad shape and would require a total restoration, but I was still interested because of the boat’s history. I asked the owner to send me his documentation, and I went through it carefully. I was convinced that this was President Johnson’s boat. A plaque on the boat that read “Custom Built for President Lyndon Johnson by Glastron Boat Company” confirmed it.

When the boat arrived, I realized it was more of a disaster than I expected. All the wood was rotted, the seats were broken, and the fiberglass hull was pitted. And no motor. Still, it was LBJ’s boat.

I took plenty of pictures and that afternoon drove over to Kingsland to see Rick Hartley at Lake LBJ Marineland. Hartley has been in the boat business most of his life and completed extensive restoration work on boats and hot rods. “I’ll take it on if you let me make it perfect,” he said after looking at the photos. “I don’t want my name on it if it is not done right. And by the way, it won’t be fast and it won’t be cheap.”

While Hartley was working on the boat, I continued researching its history. The president kept several boats on Lake LBJ, which he reached by helicopter from his ranch near Johnson City. The president was friends with a co-owner of Glastron Boats in Austin, Bill Gaston, who told him about a powerful new model, the V-204 Gulfstream, that they were building. The president had to have it.

Gaston delivered the boat to Johnson on June 13, 1965. Lyndon loved the boat because it was much faster than the crafts used by his Secret Service agents. He would wave to them as they attempted to keep up in their underpowered boats.

LBJ entertained reporters, foreign leaders, cabinet members and Supreme Court justices on the boat, as illustrated by hundreds of pictures from the LBJ Presidential Library and Library of Congress. Supreme Court justices William O. Douglas and Abe Fortas, LBJ aide Jack Valenti and Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall all were photographed on the boat.

After the president died, his family traded the boat in for a new Glastron ski boat. Gaston put the older boat into storage, where it stayed for 20 years. Eventually, Gaston donated the boat to the Boy Scouts, hoping they could either sell it or use it in some way to raise funds.

Unfortunately, the boat was stored in an open salvage yard for more than five years. Before I got to it, someone else was interested in saving the boat and bought it but quickly discovered it was too big a project and donated the craft to a Glastron boat owners group in Houston. There it sat neglected.

Hartley’s team put hundreds of hours into refinishing the fiberglass hull. They installed a new MerCruiser engine and drive, updated the electronics and rebuilt all the seats. They were able to salvage the windshield and aluminum rails. It looks like new and is as historically correct as it can be.

We named the boat Lady Bird, and it is safely housed at a marina on Lake LBJ. Now, LBJ’s boat proudly flies the American flag on the stern light pole, just as it did in 1965.

Lee Gaddis is chairman of T3, a marketing firm founded by his wife, Gay.