She joined Carter Center 40 years ago - and has known Jimmy forever

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Family ties of Bernstine Hollis, former president go back a century

Who knows where Bernstine W. Hollis would be had her mother, Mary Wright Minion, not answered the phone.

Four of Minion’s five children already had established careers, but the 21-year-old Hollis, who had just gotten a business administration degree from South Georgia Technical and Vocational School, was having a hard time finding a job.

In 1977, there were not many good options for a Black woman in Plains or nearby Americus, Georgia.

“No one wanted to hire me because I had no experience,” Hollis said. “My response was, ‘How will I get experience if no one wants to hire me?’”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

The phone call that day was from the White House.

Jimmy Carter had just been elected president of the United States and wanted to take as much of Plains with him to Washington.

Carter wanted to know if any of the five children wanted to come work in the White House.

Minion had grown up with the Carters and her husband, Leonard Wright Sr., was a sharecropper who farmed with Jimmy Carter on Carter-owned land.

Minion told them that Hollis was coming.

In March of 1977, Hollis took a job at the White House, staying through the Carter Administration before moving to Atlanta to help build the Carter Center as one of its first employees.

This week, the Carter Center marked its 40th anniversary. On Saturday, Jimmy Carter celebrates his 98th birthday.

Hollis is still working with the Carters, stretching a family connection that dates back more than 100 years.

“Bern was hesitant at first, but we thought it was an opportunity of a lifetime,” said the 92-year-old Minion, who still lives in Plains. “She was a young, shy Black girl who was a little stubborn. But if she had blown this opportunity, she probably wouldn’t have gotten any more.”

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‘Don’t remember not knowing them’

Hollis’ office, where she works as a senior accountant, at the sprawling Carter Center campus, is just outside of the balcony of the facility’s chapel.

Almost hidden, which is how she likes it.

She is still shy and seems reluctant to tell her story or draw attention to herself, choosing to stay in the background. Occasionally, she will grab a book, take her shoes off, sit in the chapel and read — usually a novel or the Bible.

On nice days, she walks the grounds of the center, looking for a quiet bench near the koi pond.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

She quotes Scripture often and teaches Sunday school at the Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church, where she has been an active member since 1981.

Associates and even co-workers were hard pressed to know that Hollis even has a relationship with the Carters.

“I never found it necessary to push my way through or fight for being first or out front,” said Hollis, 66. “I am reminded of passages of Scripture that we are not to exalt ourselves, for God will do the exalting.”

Three years ago, at an “Up Close and Personal” staff event attended by the Carters, it was Hollis’ turn to tell her life story.

Credit: Bernstine Hollis

Credit: Bernstine Hollis

After she spoke, Jimmy Carter got up and continued the story about the two families’ long-standing relationship.

Carter then asked her to sit down with him and Rosalynn Carter for the meal. They talked about old times.

Asked often when she first met the Carters, Hollis doesn’t have a definitive answer.

“I have known them all my life,” Hollis said. “I don’t remember not knowing them.”

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Farming, mud cakes and babysitting

Hollis was born in Webster County on a farm owned by the Carters, as were all of her siblings.

Her name, Bernstine, is a variation of her aunt Ernestine’s name and means “bold and beautiful,” she said.

Today, people assume that it is her last name or that she is a white Jewish woman. Everyone simply calls her “Bern.”

Minion’s mother and Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian, were nurses together. Hollis’ father and Jimmy’s father, James Earl Carter Sr., worked together.

Credit: Bernstine Hollis

Credit: Bernstine Hollis

Minion and Jimmy’s sister, Ruth, made mud cakes together. She also often babysat Jimmy’s brother, Billy.

“We are family,” Minion said of the Carters. “The only thing I can say was different is the skin color. Lillian Carter was like a mother to me.”

In 1957, the family moved from Webster County to a Carter farm in Plains. It was one of about 30 Black families who worked for the Carters or as area sharecroppers. The future president was in and out of the Wright house pretty much every day.

Credit: Bernstine Hollis

Credit: Bernstine Hollis

When one of Hollis’ sisters needed help getting medical assistance for kidney disease, the Carters provided it. In 1982, when the Wrights wanted to build a house in Plains, the Carters gifted them the land.

“I didn’t think much about it, because it was normal,” said Hollis, who made extra money in high school babysitting Amy Carter, Jimmy and Rosalynn’s daughter. “He was a farmer in Plains. An individual coming into our home.”

Plains to White House

In 1975, just a year after graduating from Plains High School, Hollis started working on the Carter presidential campaign under Maxine Reese, who organized the Peanut Brigade, Carter’s southwest Georgia supporters.

She was stationed at the now-famous Plains Railroad Depot, which became the Plains campaign headquarters and would travel through Georgia with Carter’s mother, Lillian, on campaign stops.

Credit: Bernstine Hollis

Credit: Bernstine Hollis

After the election, Hollis packed her one bag and headed to D.C. Until moving to Washington in March of 1977, the farthest Hollis had ever been outside of Georgia was to Jacksonville, Florida.

“I was afraid but not afraid,” Hollis said. “Plus, I didn’t have anything else to do.”

In the White House, Hollis initially worked in Rosalynn Carter’s correspondence office, proofing speeches and letters. Three months later, she transferred to the president’s office.

She stayed with relatives initially, until she found her own apartment. But the fast pace of Washington challenged her. She had to learn how to pay bills and shop for groceries. On the farm, her family grew all of their food. The stress caused her to lose weight.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“I can recall standing in the window of my apartment one day talking to my parents on the phone,” Hollis said. “I told them that I wanted to come home or I would jump out the window.”

She did neither and survived Carter’s four-year term in the White House by learning how to make new friends and becoming heavily involved in her church and a radio choir.

Planting roots in Atlanta

After Carter lost the 1980 election, Hollis asked herself if she was willing to stay in Washington, move back home to Plains, or find a new life in Atlanta.

Before she could make a decision, she got another phone call. This time asking if she would be part of Carter’s transition team back to Atlanta as he started to focus on his post-presidency and building the Carter Center.

“That was the answer to another prayer,” Hollis said.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

In her final days at the White House, a man she had recently met, Charles Hollis, a widower with two little children, flew to Washington to help drive a U-Haul back to Atlanta.

Six years later, in 1986, they were married. Shortly after the wedding, the couple visited the Carters at the Plains home.

“He always called me Charles, which made me feel good that a former president would call and know my name,” Charles Hollis said. “But that day, he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘If you harm one hair on Bern’s head, I am gonna send the army, the air force, the marines and the navy after you.’ I told him that I was gonna treat her like a queen.”

Initially, Hollis oversaw volunteers who handled Carter’s mail. When the Carter Center opened in 1982, Hollis came over to work in the finance office. Today, she makes sure that gifts and donations to the center are deposited into the correct causes.

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On a recent afternoon at the center, Hollis’ shyness vanished during a photo assignment.

She teased the photographer and struck several poses at her favorite spots throughout the center. On one occasion, she reclined on a bench like an Ebony Fashion Fair model.

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

“Nervous energy,” she said. “I just want to walk worthy of what I am called to do. Being fruitful and making sure what I do is meaningful to the people.”

She has been spending more time at home taking care of Charles, who was recently diagnosed with cancer, and playing with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But she is not ready to think about retirement.

“It could have been anyone, but I was the chosen one,” Hollis said. “I am grateful that I took advantage of the opportunity. Had I not taken it, I am not sure where my life would have taken me.”