Carter’s friends in Plains knew the cancer diagnosis

But they needed to hear it again anyway.

For four days, some of Jimmy Carter’s closest friends had kept mum about what he’d told them after Sunday evening’s service at Maranatha Baptist Church here: The former president had been diagnosed with melanoma in his brain. Until Thursday morning’s press conference at the Carter Center in Atlanta, he was entrusting them with his hopes and fears.

“In this town, it’s hard to keep a secret,” conceded Jan Williams, a Maranatha member who joined seven other residents of the town of barely 700 people to watch Carter’s press conference live on CNN at the Buffalo Cafe. “People wanted to know what we knew, of course.

“But Jimmy Carter wanted to be the one to tell the world. And who better to do it?”

Who better, indeed? That was the unifying sentiment inside the one-room restaurant on Main Street as the group — about half of them Maranatha members — watched Carter speak honestly, reflectively and with the occasional welcome flash of humor about confronting this latest extraordinarily difficult challenge in his life. The secret was out now — and not just about the particulars of his diagnosis.

“In my experience with President Carter, he’s always looking for the positive lesson,” said Barbara Judy, the superintendent of the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, run by the National Park Service here. She’d paid special attention when a reporter asked him about the message he hoped to deliver to others about dealing with cancer. “So that was the moment when I knew he has the chance, and the desire, to do a lot of good with this.”

Summed up longtime friend Bobby Salter succinctly: “That’s the Jimmy Carter I know.”

For both Salter and Judy, Thursday’s press conference was the first time that they learned the details of Carter’s cancer and treatment plans. They probably could’ve watched from anywhere, but there was obviously something about going through it all together in the town Carter told the assembled press was his “haven” and the place “my closest friends” have always been.

Those friends hung on his every word, even the ones who’d heard much of it before at church. Big chuckles greeted Carter’s revelation he’d only taken pain medication “for a few hours” following liver surgery, with one friend, Jill Stuckey, commenting wryly, “I’m surprised he took any.” When the former president spoke longingly about still wanting to go on a November Habitat for Humanity build in Nepal, three people in the cafe shouted out “NO!” simultaneously.

“I want him to do everything he wants to do that doesn’t affect his treatment,” Williams sighed later. “But he has to take care of Jimmy Carter.”

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