The 71-year-old Polish immigrant, who lives in Alabama, was motivated by Carter’s humble upbringing and values of hard work during her earlier struggles in life. On Saturday, she joined the masses who surrounded a birthday cake, cupcakes, and a signed banner dedicated to the former president. Park employees took their time – days in fact – to construct the perfect chocolate peanut butter cake that was covered in green icing – Carter’s favorite flavor and color.
The crowd was then recorded joyfully singing “Happy Birthday” outside the high school that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter attended as students. That video will be shown to him while the birthday banner, which was signed and decorated by dozens of people over the past few weeks, will be placed right outside the window of his family home, according to Jill Stuckey, the superintendent of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park.
That home has provided some special memories for Nancy Spice, 68, a good friend of the Carters for the past decade. Spice met the couple at Maranatha Baptist Church and started cooking for them over the past five years.
After noticing the time was getting late and their bellies were full of cooked duck from their first dinner together, Spice said Jimmy Carter, without hesitation, walked to her car while carrying containers from the meal. He then placed them inside her vehicle.
But as he turned away to head back inside, Spice couldn’t resist a final comment.
“I go to Jimmy, ‘You’re a magical man,’” she told the AJC. “And he goes, ‘I don’t know about magic, but I’m a man.’”
Years later she returned to his home, walked over to Carter, and reminded him of his earlier comment near her vehicle. She said Carter paused for a moment.
He then got closer, and said, “OK, I’m a little bit magical.”
Traditionally on Carter’s birthday, the mayor’s wife hosts a birthday party for Carter, who is usually seen blowing out the candles, Stuckey said. But hospice has changed things, and the Carters don’t go out much. Last weekend, they were seen at the annual Plains Peanut Festival, but that was a big surprise. Nowadays, Stuckey cherishes every moment Carter is nearby in Plains. He remains the heart of the town.
“I’m so glad that he’s around,” she told the AJC. “Back in February, nobody expected this birthday celebration today with him still with us. So it’s fabulous he’s there, and I’m expecting that (he’ll be here) a year from now.”
His birthday weekend was held amid worries of a government shutdown closing national parks across the country. However, that shutdown was averted, and the high school, boyhood home, and train depot in Plains were all open on Sunday.
The previous day, up to 200 people walked into the visitor center of the high school. While they originally planned to make 99 green cupcakes, Stuckey said that number ended up being more than 120.
Dozens of retired members of the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) were also in town for a reunion held both outside and inside the high school. The organization planned it during Carter’s birthday weekend because many served under his administration and think fondly of the longest-living president. That included Harold Looney, who was a presidential response/trip officer and worked in communications security under Carter from 1978 until 1981, he said.
But the 82-year-old is forever known by another title: “President Carter’s catcher.”
After joining the administration, Looney was approached by a doctor about Carter needing someone to catch for him on their softball team. Somehow, they had received word that he played the position during high school and intramural baseball. He accepted, and the next day, Looney arrived at the softball field, where Carter approached him.
“Are you Harold?” he asked, surprising Looney that he already knew his name. He replied, “Yes, Mr. President.”
They would play about five times a year during the summer months at the field, which still stands about 300 feet from Plains High School. Looney, who lives in Virginia, said Carter always mentioned the same thing whenever they met.
“He would always say, ‘That’s my catcher.”
Celebrations aside, it was fairly quiet in downtown Plains Sunday, with a few people browsing the stores. Others posed for pictures at the storefronts and near signs wishing Carter a happy birthday. Philip Kurland, the owner of the Plains Trading Post, said Carter’s birthday has prompted an upswing of people at his memorabilia store over the past few days, including many from outside the country. They all want to share the same thing.
“Everyone (who enters) has a story about the way Jimmy Carter affected them,” he told the AJC.
Irene Norman made the 120-mile trip from Atlanta to Plains because of Carter. She wasn’t surprised he was still here, even after her 89-year-old mother was placed in hospice care and died the next day. The 75-year-old East Point resident called Carter a kind, religious man, whom she said cares about people of all races.
“That’s what he means to me,” she told the AJC.
Within the walls of Maranatha late Sunday morning, the signing of “Happy Birthday” again echoed but from more than 25 worshippers who each held red, white and blue fans with the words “Happy 99th Birthday Mr. President!”
An hour earlier during her Sunday school class, Carter’s niece Kim Fuller said the former president was surrounded at home by his grandchildren and eldest child, Jack Carter. “He’s just very happy that they are all here,” she said.
During hospice care, she said at least one of his children is always present with Carter at home. They usually take turns staying there. However, this weekend was special.
“He is at home, where he wants to be,” Fuller said. “Does he know that people all over the world are wishing him a happy birthday? Yes. But he’s home, surrounded by family, and that’s the way it needs to be.”