Atlanta’s Carter Center preps for future without founder

The first time Paige Alexander shook President Jimmy Carter’s hand, as a 12-year-old touring the White House Rose Garden with her mother, the Atlanta native joked that she never wanted to wash her hand.

So it was surreal that some four decades later Alexander found herself shaking Carter’s hand once again, this time in Plains, Georgia, after she was named chief executive of his nonprofit, the Carter Center.

“As I was leaving and shook his hand I told him that story” about meeting in 1979, Alexander recounted. “He said, ‘It’s COVID. You should wash your hands.’”

The Carter Center CEO Paige Alexander poses for a portrait in her office on Friday, February 24, 2023. (Natrice Miller/ natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Memories like Alexander’s have been traded by Carter Center employees in the days since the Atlanta-based nonprofit announced that its namesake had entered hospice care.

Carter’s death will put the nearly 41-year-old institution — which was established to promote human rights, advance democracy and eradicate diseases around the planet — into a different kind of spotlight. It will also serve as an inflection point that Alexander, who took over as chief executive in June 2020, insists will only reinforce the organization’s mission.

“We’ll honor his existing commitments and we’ll innovate and grow from those,” Alexander said in an interview from her office at the heart of the center’s tree-lined campus in Poncey-Highland.

Upon the former president’s death, official ceremonies are expected to take place in Plains, Atlanta and Washington D.C. spanning roughly a week.

A Camp David-like institution

The Carter Center was created in the aftermath of the Democrat’s re-election defeat as he was brainstorming ideas for his presidential library. Carter said he envisioned something not unlike Camp David, the presidential retreat in rural Maryland that’s become known as a setting in which thorny international conflicts are tackled.

Out of that kernel emerged a policy center where, in partnership with Emory University, scholars could focus on issues such as world peace, human rights, hunger, poverty and arms control.

Jimmy Carter gives a thumbs up sign as he and Rosalynn give a tour of the Carter Center to Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Circa 1986. Credit / Joey Ivansco

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The center now employs more than 3,000 staff members, the large majority of them overseas and based in countries like Ethiopia, Chad and Mali.

VIDEO: Atlanta’s Carter Center preps for future without founder

For decades, Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, would visit the center for one week a month, staying in an apartment steps away from the CEO’s office that included a Murphy bed and kitchenette. They would also travel internationally to support the center’s work.

“They were true staff people in terms of being on trips, in terms of people that they touched in the field,” Alexander said.

The Carters continued that work into their 90s, halting their trips from Plains only when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. The former president continued to stay involved, calling Alexander monthly to stay up-to-date on the center’s work, particularly on passion projects such as eradicating Guinea worm disease.

Carter would talk “about everything from Myanmar to the Middle East,” Alexander recalled. “He was still very actively engaged and wanted to know about the center’s work. He had opinions about it.”

Jimmy Carter consoles a young patient having a Guinea worm removed from her body in Savelugu, Ghana, in February 2007. The Carter Center lead the international campaign to eradicate Guinea worm disease. (The Carter Center)

Credit: The Carter Center

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Credit: The Carter Center

But those calls from the former president stopped about eight months ago, Alexander said, when Carter announced he was fully retiring.

“He felt good about everybody here and the continuation of his life’s work,” she said.

Jimmy Carter turned 98 last October. Rosalynn Carter, 95, also has retired from the Carter Center.

Alexander said the institute’s longtime interests of global public health, including eradicating neglected tropical diseases, will be “the North star” moving forward, as are mental health, promoting peace, conflict resolution and democracy.

Alexander said the center will also continue its more recent involvement in U.S. elections. After decades of observing voting in foreign countries, the institute monitored Georgia’s risk-limiting audit of the presidential election in 2020 and participated in an election security task force for Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office.

Last year it observed the midterm elections in Georgia and several other swing states, and launched a bipartisan initiative to encourage candidates to uphold five core doctrines of democratic elections: integrity, nonviolence, security, oversight and the peaceful transfer of power.

Jason Carter, a grandson of the former president and first lady, joined the Carter Center’s board in 2009 and became chairman in 2015. As a 7-year-old, he helped cut the ribbon to open the center in 1982.

Former President Jimmy Carter shakes hands with the hometown folks arriving for his birthday party with former first lady Rosalynn Carter at Maxine Reese Park on Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, in Plains.  CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

Jimmy Carter stories

It hasn’t only been staffers who have shared their remembrances of Carter in recent weeks.

An online remembrance board has attracted upwards of 9,000 posts since it was created a few days after Carter’s hospice announcement. And interest in the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum has surged in recent weeks.

Alexander said she’s been struck by many of the remembrances of everyday people.

“I am amazed at how many hands he shook on airplanes in the United States,” she said. “That was the type of person he was, and so people really have said there’s a lot of decency and integrity in him that they don’t necessarily see these days.”

She added, “Everyone’s got a Jimmy Carter story, which is really nice.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included details about potential ceremonies in Atlanta following the death of Jimmy Carter. The Carter Center says details about such ceremonies will be made public after his death.


5 things to know

- It’s separate from the Carter presidential library and museum.

- The center is governed by a board of trustees, which is chaired by the former president’s grandson, Jason Carter.

- Since the mid-1980s, a major focus has been eliminating Guinea worm disease, which is caused by drinking contaminated water.

- The institution has observed 113 elections abroad and, more recently, in the U.S.

- Under the leadership of former first lady Rosalynn Carter, the center has also focused on mental health.

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