And at the high school where Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, attended, a historian speaking from the refurbished auditorium urged a crowd of dozens to take the “Carter challenge.”
“Do something nice for somebody that needs it,” said Larry Cook, who showed visitors his extensive collection of presidential memorabilia. “If you have someone who needs a phone call, make the phone call. If somebody needs a visit, go make that visit.”
Just days after the Carter Center announced the 98-year-old would live his final days under hospice care at his home, the reality was slowly sinking in for the people who have long called the former president both a neighbor and a friend.
“It feels like I’m losing part of me,” said Philip Kurland, who runs the Plains Trading Post, a memorabilia store famed for its extensive collection of political buttons, signs and other presidential nostalgia. (A can of 46-year-old Billy Beer brewed by Carter’s late brother will run you $13.50.)
When Carter is gone, Kurland said, “it’ll feel awkward and odd to me, anyway, for a while.”
“But I think overall when that’s passed,” he said, “I think there will be a feeling of joy because every time I think of him it’ll put a smile on my face.”
‘We can’t fill his shoes’
The prospect of honoring the longest-living president in U.S. history while he’s still alive turned the town of roughly 500 people into a hive of activity.
Local stores did steady traffic as a man wielding a heavy-duty pressure washer swept the sidewalks of the town’s main drag clear of debris. Camera crews from local and national networks set up on a sliver of greenspace near town.
As news of Carter’s declining health spread, Michael Dominick rushed out to spruce up the city’s trademark “Smiling Peanut” statue on Ga. 45 to prepare for the traffic.
Dominick acknowledges that Carter — or “Mr. Jimmy” as the locals call him — doesn’t like the toothy grin on the legume-shaped sculpture. But it’s become a landmark in town, and Dominick relishes the opportunity to fix it up.
“I do enjoy it,” he said, as passersby thanked him for his work. “It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever painted.”
Not far from the oversized peanut sits the elegant high school where both Carters graduated. Now transformed into a historic site, it attracted a surge of visitors, including dozens who swung by Cook’s lecture on the feats of lesser-known presidents.
Cook told the crowd he considered changing the program to tailor it around Carter, but he said the former president would “not make it all about him.”
Just outside the historic high school, LeAnne Smith, Carter’s niece, was asked why he and Rosalynn decided to return to this sleepy rural hamlet when they could have spent his post-presidency just about anywhere on the globe.
“This is who he is. This has always been his safe place,” she said. “He knew he could come home and go back to the house he built in 1961 and get away from everything.”
Holding back tears, Smith said family members are trying to honor him in their own way.
“We can’t fill his shoes. Absolutely not. But we can walk a step or two,” Smith said. “For me, he and Aunt Rosalynn are the good in this world.”
‘This is who he is’
Over at Carter’s boyhood farm, the chickens that provide fresh eggs to the former president’s family clucked and pecked as a stream of tourists trekked through the remnants of the 300-acre property where the former president grew up.
On the land is the home where Carter grew up, as well as a blacksmith’s shop, a commissary still stocked with goods and the former home of Jack and Rachel Clark, the Black family that played an instrumental role in Carter’s childhood.
Bernadette Backhaus and Spencer Horne, from Charlotte, North Carolina, were among the tourists. They canceled a ski trip when the snow didn’t come, so they made a detour to Plains. They marveled at a wind-powered working well that the Carters used to tap water every day.
“This just goes to show you that with determination, drive and an education, you could come from a place like this and grow to be president of the United States,” Backhaus said.
Cook, the historian, said that’s part of the town’s mystique.
“There’s no place that I would rather be on Presidents Day than right here,” he said. “When you visit Plains, you experience the history of President Carter, but you walk in the footsteps of ‘Mr. Jimmy.’ ”