Opinion: A peanut farmer helped a schoolteacher’s dream come true

Paula Wallace founded the Savannah College of Art and Design and serves as its president. In this guest column, Wallace recounts the help and inspiration she received from former President Jimmy Carter.

By Paula Wallace

Earlier this month, it was announced that Jimmy Carter, the longest-living president in U.S. history at 98, had entered hospice care at his home in Plains, Georgia, a short drive from where I live in Savannah. Tributes to his life and career have begun to fill every newsfeed, and deservedly so. For as saddened as I am to learn of his health, I am strengthened by the goodness and compassion of his legacy. What a life! Like so many, I have a special connection to President Carter, and in some ways, the very existence of the university I founded — and its character — owe much to him.

When he was elected in 1976, all of us in Georgia — Republican, Democrat and independent alike — felt tremendous pride that one of our own now called 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. home, though his heart never left the farm in Plains, which is perhaps what we loved most about him. The Beltway runs wild with paper tigers, but President Carter was hewn from stronger stuff.

I saw so many parallels between his background and my own, which gave me resolve that I, too, might accomplish great things from humble beginnings. He was raised in the Baptist church, just as I was. Where he taught Sunday school, I played piano for choir and services. He was a peanut farmer, while I was a teacher in Atlanta Public Schools: arduous, demanding, unpretentious vocations.

In fact, when he served as governor, I was teaching at Warren T. Jackson Elementary School, where his daughter Amy was a student. He and Rosalynn came to teacher conferences and school events just like other parents, totally unpretentious, authentic, and truly interested in their daughter’s education. He could be a forceful presence in debate, but this was no career politician. He and Rosalynn were real people. Good people.

I was so inspired by his ascension to the White House in 1976 that I put my name into the lottery and won a ticket to attend his inauguration — the one and only inauguration I’ve ever attended. It was bitterly cold in Washington that day, but remains one of the warmest, happiest memories of my life, a day of high hopes for the powerful promise of integrity over politics-as-usual.

In many ways, his success and commitment to being wholly and fully himself implanted in me a belief that I, too, might do something audacious and grand with my life. My dream, which soon took root, was to create a new art school in Savannah, Georgia: a perfectly inspired setting, I reasoned, for a college devoted to creative professions.

Those early days were not easy. No startup is. To fund the dream, we sold every stick of furniture and even my cherished Volkswagen Bug. My parents contributed funds from their retirement and came down to help. I leveraged every contact in my address book, calling on friends to help me build a faculty, write a curriculum, and rehabilitate a dilapidated armory for classes — though I didn’t have much of a network back then. One of our greatest early challenges was earning approval from the U.S. Department of Education. But wait. Didn’t I know someone in the White House?

I had taught many students in Atlanta Public Schools, including one third grader at Garden Hills Elementary named Lincoln Watson, whose father I’d met at a parent-teacher conference. In a wild turn of events, Jack Watson now worked in D.C. as President Carter’s chief of staff. I wrote a letter to Jack, imploring his help to send representatives from the U.S. Education Department to SCAD to review and approve our little startup college for recognition by the federal government. I soon received a call from Jack. Yes, he remembered me, and yes, he would see if he could help.

“I’ll send a rocket over to the Department of Education from the White House,” he said.

Thanks to that little “rocket” from the Carter White House, the agency agreed to send a team of three college presidents to SCAD a few months later. After a thorough review of our operations and countless interviews, the feds signed off on SCAD, giving us the footing we so desperately needed to grow into the international university we are today.

It’s still miraculous that my humble Georgia connections enabled SCAD to take flight on the global stage. I was certainly not a major donor or a politico. But President Carter had established an administration committed to helping people, not currying favor for political ends. He was and remains a leader of tremendous integrity.

He arguably has accomplished more after his presidency than any other chief executive in American history, an outlier among U.S. politicians. From his White House departure to the present — among roles such as prolific author and globetrotting diplomat — President Carter devoted his life to providing safe and affordable housing for Americans through Habitat for Humanity. You can see that same results-oriented compassion at SCAD SERVE, our in-house design lab focused on meaningful solutions for SCAD’s hometowns of Atlanta and Savannah, with special focus on the environment, food, clothing and housing. For example, SCAD provides affordable workforce housing for frontline service workers through the Lorlee, a former SCAD residence hall redesigned with 22 units at below-market rates.

President Carter’s impact on SCAD is an example of how the unknown ripples of our lives can be more powerful than we may ever know. I know he knew about SCAD (Jack Watson saw to that), but he probably never knew how essential and important he was to SCAD, or the high regard in which he is held by everyone at this university today.

Thank you, President Carter. SCAD remains forever grateful for your strength of character, your compassion, and your love for your home in Georgia and these United States of America.