For a time last year, Jimmy Carter felt his extraordinary life was effectively done.
But thanks to his equally extraordinary marriage, he never felt alone.
“There was one period of a few days that I thought I only had a couple weeks left of life,” Carter, 91, recalled in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution late last month, sitting beside his wife, Rosalynn, on a couch at the Carter Center.
Today they mark a milestone most couples can’t even contemplate: 70 years as husband and wife.
Back when doctors discovered cancer in his liver and his brain late last summer he thought they might not reach the rare benchmark.
“We thought life was over for me. I think that having been together for 69 years obviously made it easier for us to weather that storm of emotions.”
Easier, maybe. But not easy, as Rosalynn Carter, 88, made clear.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said quietly. “That was … earthshaking.”
Fortunately, things took a more propitious turn in the weeks and months that followed. A combination of radiation and immunotherapy drugs had proven so effective that his doctors were stopping treatment, Carter said in March (although they continue to monitor him for signs of cancer).
Of everything they’ve accomplished together and apart — the White House, a Nobel Peace Prize for him, her groundbreaking work in mental health advocacy — they know it’s the marriage milestone that really stops people in their tracks.
“It always gets applause when I mention it publicly,” the former president chuckled. “That’s the surest applause that we get.”
Indeed, most “traditional anniversary gift” lists stop at 60 years, so uncommon are such long unions — let alone one still as affectionate as the Carters, based on their playful banter during their recent AJC interview.
The public can help the couple celebrate. Today, visitors to the Carter Presidential Library and Museum will pay just 70 cents per person.
This weekend, there’ll be a celebratory dinner dance in Annapolis, Md., where friends and supporters of the Carter Center will be gathered for an annual four-day retreat.
This summer also marks the 70th anniversary of Carter’s graduation from the United States Naval Academy on June 5, 1946. A month later, Carter married the former Eleanor Rosalynn Smith, who was friends with his younger sister, Ruth — and who’d turned him down the first time he’d proposed a few months earlier when she visited him at Annapolis.
“We would continue to write each other letters,” Jimmy Carter said in a woe-is-me sort of way that suggested he was enjoying this part of the interview greatly. “Mostly her letters were about all the boys she was going with … I was in the Naval Academy and I was kind of isolated from the outside world.”
Rosalynn Carter shook her head slightly.
“I was in college, we had two boys in the whole school,” she said about attending Georgia Southwestern College (now Georgia Southwestern State University) in Americus as World War II was coming to an end. “They were (classified) 4F and everybody else was at war. But he’s said it for so long, I think he believes it.”
“She was going with every available boy,” her husband quipped, waggling his eyebrows.
Whatever. It worked. Were they simply better at this being married thing than everyone else right from the beginning? It’s not something they ever really thought about, they agreed. They just got married and stayed married, through good times and bad, for 70 years.
“It’s quite an accomplishment, I think,” Rosalynn Carter said.
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