Carter’s hometown shares love, respect for ‘Mr. Jimmy’

Former U.S. president, 98 years old, in hospice at home in Plains, Georgia.

Sunday service was different this morning, as neighbors, friends and church members of Maranatha Baptist Church pray for President Jimmy Carter.

PLAINS, Ga. – To folks outside of Jimmy Carter’s beloved hometown, he’s the famed peanut farmer-turned politician who is the longest living president in U.S. history. But the people of Plains know him as something else: the neighbor and friend they simply call “Mr. Jimmy.”

About everyone in this town of hardly 500 people has a story about Carter, who was born and raised in this southwest Georgia community, and is preparing to spend his final days in hospice at the humble home he has shared here with his wife Rosalynn since 1961.

“To me, he’s a friend. To a lot of us here, he’s just a churchgoer that sits on the same pews,” said Zac Steele, one of the lay leaders of Maranatha Baptist Church, the congregation where Carter long taught Sunday school lessons until his health declined.

For the last half-century, the people here love to tell visitors they have a pair of famous exports: peanuts and a peanut farmer-turned-president.

The local airport is named in his honor, and his boyhood farm and his colorful brother’s gas station have been turned into bona fide tourist attractions. The high school that Carter and Rosalynn attended is a national historic site. A red-white-and-blue sign reminds tourists they’ve entered the home of “Our 39th President.”

Locals see him as one of their own because, well, he is. He presided for years over the town’s annual Peanut Parade from the balcony of the Plains Historic Inn, cheerfully handing out awards to the proud farmers showing off their antique tractors.

He rarely missed a board meeting of the Plains Better Hometown Program or milestone shows at the elegant Rylander Theatre in Americus.

Zac Steele (left) and Jan Williams (right) share a moment as they talked to media before Sunday service at Maranatha Baptist Church. Neighbors, friends and church members of former President Jimmy Carter gathered at the church in Plains, Sunday, February 19, where Carter long taught Sunday school lessons until his health declined. The former U.S. president and Georgia governor, 98 years old, is in hospice at home in Plains, Georgia. (Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com)

Credit: Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com

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Credit: Ryon Horne / Ryon.Horne@ajc.com

The sun rises over Maranatha Baptist Church as congregants prepare to say goodbye to former President Jimmy Carter. Photo: Richard Elliott/WSB

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His regular Sunday school lessons at Maranatha brought visitors from across the planet — some who camped out for nights in the church parking lot to assure themselves a place in the pews. Afterwards, he delighted in snapping pictures with his visitors.

“My doctor tells me I have to sit during photographs,” he told one of the last groups to partake in his lesson. “Please don’t take my sitting to mean that I think I’m better than you.”

Hot dogs and wine

Longtime residents recounted stories of Carter dropping by the local ice cream parlor for dessert or swinging by a coffee shop to chat up patrons.

A former lifeguard told the story of how he once blew the whistle at a group horse-playing in the town’s public pool — only to realize all the splashing came from Carter as he tried to dunk a Secret Service agent.

“He’s part of the fabric of the community. And he immerses himself here. He and Rosalynn are omnipresent in this town,” said Evan Kutzler, a history professor who met the Carters shortly after moving to Plains in 2015.

They soon shared a meal of hotdogs and wine together, engaging in a discussion not about weighty global problems but of their shared childhood joy of searching for arrowheads.

Still, Kutzler said, despite their friendship he could never call Carter “Mr. Jimmy.”

That honorific, he said, “belongs to those who actually grew up here.”

‘The best’

After Carter publicly disclosed his battle with melanoma cancer in 2015, he and Rosalynn scaled back a busy regimen of international trips observing elections and meeting with heads of state to return to his hometown for his final campaign.

And the people of Plains rallied around their ailing native son, showering him with support — “Jimmy Carter: Cancer Survivor” signs sprouted up on lawns across town — and some much-needed tough love.

Consider the scene at Buffalo Café when Carter said he still planned to visit Nepal despite his cancer treatment. Friends gathered at the downtown Plains eatery to watch the press conference on TV cried out “No!” in dismay, protective of their neighbor.

Indeed, many worried that the monotony of Plains would bore Carter, even though they knew he’d bide his time fishing in local creeks, taking walks in the woods, swimming at the lap pool in his backyard and entertaining visitors.

His friends say he did just that, defying illness as he outlived two of his successors and his vice president after leaving the White House in 1981 and moving back to Plains. But time took its toll. After surviving a cancerous melanoma that spread from his liver to his brain, Carter suffered several falls in 2019 that required hospitalization. He largely receded from public life as his health worsened.

At Maranatha on Sunday, congregants tried to come to terms with the impending farewell.

“Think about the legacy he’s got. It’s mind-boggling to think of the things people are going to remember,” Carter’s niece Kim Fuller said to the congregation.

“It’s going to be hard but I know as well as I know my name that he’s going to be gracious. He’s going to be kind. And he’s not going to want the people around him to suffer.”

Jan Williams once helped coordinate the hundreds of visitors who flocked to the small church each weekend that Carter planned a lesson. Now, she’s readying to say an inevitable goodbye to a friend who also happens to be a former president.

“If you were his friend, you were so blessed. And if he were your friend, it was a greater blessing. There’s nothing bad about the man that I could ever say. He cared about the people of Plains tremendously.”

She knew this day was coming, but it doesn’t make it easier. The church choir, she said, has been preparing to sing a hymn called “The Best” for weeks. She wishes it was ready for this Sunday.

“Because I certainly think President Carter has given his best.”

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