Rosalynn Carter on Miss Lillian: ‘She just wanted to serve'

Lillian Carter, mother of former President Jimmy Carter is shown with Jimmy in 1977 in Americus, Ga. Lillian Carter died in 1983 at age 85. His father died in 1953, never knowing his son would become president of the United States. (Credit/UPI File Photo)

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Lillian Carter, mother of former President Jimmy Carter is shown with Jimmy in 1977 in Americus, Ga. Lillian Carter died in 1983 at age 85. His father died in 1953, never knowing his son would become president of the United States. (Credit/UPI File Photo)

Lillian Gordy Carter (1898-1983) was the mother of President Jimmy Carter

Unlike many a young fiancée, the 18-year-old didn't have to fret much about getting along with her future mother-in-law when she accepted Jimmy Carter's marriage proposal in 1946. Rosalynn Smith had been girlhood friends with Ruth Carter, Lillian Carter's youngest daughter, and had been a sleep-over guest at their home outside Plains.

Years before she captured a nation's imagination with her sassy, oversized "Miss Lillian" personality, Carter had cut a large figure around the South Georgia town, a registered nurse who often provided care for those who couldn't afford to pay. Lillian also helped care for Rosalynn's father, Wilburn Edgar Smith, before he died in 1940 of leukemia at age 44, when his eldest daughter was 13.

On Wednesday Rosalynn Carter will be the keynote speaker at Wesleyan College in Macon as Lillian Gordy Carter (1898-1983) and two other women are honored as Georgia Women of Achievement.

More than two decades ago, after speaking at the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame at Judson College in Marion, Carter encouraged Columbus luncheon attendees that Georgia should launch a tribute to women, famous and obscure, who had made contributions to their communities. A volunteer group created a traveling exhibit that could visit schools and libraries and an online hall of fame ( that gives each inductee her own biographical page.

In a recent interview, Rosalynn Carter talked about her mother-in-law, who will become one of Georgia Women of Achievement's 71 honorees at Thursday's ceremony (for which reservations are no longer being accepted).

Q: What are some of your early childhood memories of Miss Lillian?

A: It was the Depression and people didn't have money to pay a doctor and Jimmy's mother took care of everybody whether they had money or not. And my father just admired her for that and so he named my little sister for Lillian.

Then when my father was sick, she came to my house every day and took care of him, gave him his shots, helped Mother turn him over in the bed. Just a great woman, she would do what she could for anybody.

Q: She seems to have been a woman who lived her beliefs. By focusing on her as a character when her son became president, did the media and public miss a little of that? 

A: Absolutely. She said what she thought no matter whether anybody agreed with or disagreed with her. For instance, she's the only person I ever heard when I was little say anything good about about Abraham Lincoln. She was positive about him. And this was the days of segregation in South Georgia -- I'm old, I remember those days. And she took care of black people just as much as white people.

She didn't care what anybody said about her. She just lived her life, I think kind of relished it.

Q: So she was a strong-minded from the start?

A: I remember her when I was a child. Jimmy's father would let her have the pecans from a little pecan orchard and she used to get some people to help her pick them up. And then she would sell them and she would buy Gloria and Ruth, Jimmy's sisters, store-bought clothes. Well, back then, nobody bought store-bought clothes. My mother made all of our clothes, my friends' mothers made all of their clothes. This was the Depression. So they had store-bought clothes, which I thought was really wonderful.

She was always doing something all the time. Interesting. And when Jimmy's father died, she just became very independent and outgoing.

Q: She had different jobs -- helped open a nursing home, was a house mother for an Auburn University fraternity -- and then started talking about joining the Peace Corps when she was in her 60s. What did her children think about that?

A: She came into the [Carter's Warehouse] office one day and said she had to give [the house mother's job] up. She got too close to the young men. She just felt like each one was her son.

She expected them to say, "Oh, Mother, you can't do that." Instead they said, "That's wonderful, Mom!"

She said she'd seen a spot on TV that asked, "Is your glass half-full or half-empty?" She decided she wanted hers to be full.

Q: Not half-full but full?

A: That's right. I think she just wanted to serve.

Q: Her son had an urge to serve as well, but politics is different than the Peace Corps. Was she thick-skinned when it came to criticism of him or did it really steam her up?

A: She'd get mad, no doubt about that. She would probably say, "Aw, pshaw," something like that. "They just don't know what they're talking about."


Also being inducted by the Georgia Women of Achievement on Thursday at Wesleyan College in Macon:

May duBignon Stiles Howard (1894-1983): A Savannah leader in the local and state PTA and Women's Auxiliary of the Georgia Medical Society, she was dedicated to improving lives through education, public health and participation in government.

Mary Francis Hill Coley (1900-1966): An Albany accomplished midwife and a health care advocate who saw no racial barriers, as chronicled in the 1952 documentary, "All My Babies."


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