Plains — Jimmy Carter turns 93 on Sunday, and the peanut farmer who became president will mark it in his preferred fashion: By attending a piano concert in his honor at an Americus church on Saturday night, then teaching Sunday School at his own church here the following morning. In Atlanta, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum will lower admission to 93 cents on Sunday and have a birthday card visitors can sign.
But this teeny southwestern Georgia town got an early jump on things last weekend, as thousands of people turned the 21st Annual Plains Peanut Festival into an impromptu celebration of the most famous citizen’s big day.
As they waited for the start of the parade during last Saturday's 21st Annual Plains Peanut Festival, the crowd shot photos of Jimmy Carter on the balcony of the Plains Historic Inn. Then they serenaded him with "Happy Birthday." Jill Vejnoska/AJC
When Carter emerged on the balcony of the Plains Historic Inn for the start of the parade on Saturday morning, the crowd looking up from Main Street serenaded him with “Happy Birthday to You.”Later that night, it was the Carter Political Items Collectors’ turn. At their annual banquet in Americus, the group colorfully — and quite literally — wished the guest of honor many happy returns.
“President Carter will be 93 just a few days from now,” said CPIC president Roger Van Sickle, pointing out that former President George H.W. Bush actually is several months older. “So what we look forward to is coming back to this group in 2024 to help President Carter and President Bush 41 celebrate their 100th birthdays!”
Seated at the head table, Carter couldn’t help but grin. After all, he was the one who’d been boasting about his birthday earlier in the day.
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter wave from the balcony of the Plains Historic Inn during the Peanut Festival parade on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. Photo by Jill Stuckey
“On the first day of October, I’ll be 93 years old,” he’d crowed to the parade crowd, then rhetorically wondered aloud who among them wanted to come down with clogged arteries or other afflictions.
“Well, if you don’t,” he leaned into the microphone for the big finish, “EAT PEANUTS!”
In part, Carter, who’s always a high-profile presence at the festival, was simply playing his role as Peanut-Pusher-In-Chief. But he also seems more comfortable with the subject of his birthday now than when he turned 90 and admitted to being slightly overwhelmed by all of the hoopla surrounding it.
You’re never too old to change, apparently.
Jimmy Carter and Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter applaud during the former president’s 90th birthday celebration in Plains in 2014. There was a lot of hoopla surrounding that milestone birthday, including this surprise ice cream party thrown for him by his lifelong hometown. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Carter basically admitted as much earlier this month when he said he totally would’ve used Twitter if it had existed back when he ran for president in 1976 and 1980.
“I would have gotten as many (followers) as possible,” Carter said at his annual Town Hall with some 1,400 cheering first year Emory students.
0091401-17SNSept 14, 2017:Emory University distinguished professor and former President of the United States Jimmy Carter address the student body at the Woodpec Athletic Facility on the Emory University campus in Atlanta, GA. Stephen Nowland/Emory University
Photo: Stephen Nowland/Emory University/Â© Stephen Nowland/Emory University
The idea that you’re never too old to change also came up during Carter’s Sunday School lesson last weekend.
“Starting today, we can ask the same question for the rest of our life: ‘What kind of a person do I want to be?,’” Carter, whose brain cancer is in remission, told visitors from at least 25 states, Ireland, Thailand and Canada near the end of the 45-minute class at Maranatha Baptist Church. “It doesn’t matter what we’ve decided up ‘til now.”
Jimmy Carter poses at the Plains Train Depot with male age group winners in a road race during last weekend's 21st Annual Plains Peanut Festival. Photo by Jill Stuckey
Yet not even Jimmy Carter can completely outrun time. He and Rosalynn, his wife of 71 years, skipped Saturday night’s Festival Dance on Main Street — although he twice grabbed the microphone during the parade and exhorted everyone else to go (Best moment? When he announced, “This is Jimmy Carter,” just in case anyone in town didn’t know who that fellow yakking away on the balcony was). And, unlike at previous year’s festivals, this time he didn’t personally hand out the awards to some 150 top finishers in road races and school art contests. But, clad in worn blue jeans and a fluorescent festival T-shirt, he still spent close to 30 minutes posing for photos with them in the nearly 90-degree heat.
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It’s all part of the plan to help preserve and protect Plains’s favorite son, suggested Mill Simmons, chairman of Plains Better Hometown, Inc., the nonprofit that puts on the annual festival.
The line outside Billy Carter's gas station in Plains where Jimmy Carter signed 492 books during last weekend's Peanut Festival. Jill Vejnoska/AJC
“We’re having to cut back on his activities a bit, or he’d still insist on doing everything,” Simmons said of Carter, who’d just spent an hour signing 492 books for festivalgoers, then rather nimbly hopped into a gray pickup truck driven by a Secret Service agent. “He was ready, I think. We’ve already decided to cut down on the number of books people can get signed next year.”
Former President Jimmy Carter helps build homes for Habitat for Humanity in Edmonton Alberta, Tuesday July 11, 2017. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)
Photo: JASON FRANSON/AP
Yep, next year. Carter’s already got a week of building Habitat for Humanity houses in Indiana on his schedule for next August, too, and he’s writing a new book (his 30th) on faith, he said at the Carter Center this month.
It seems there’s always something to do, even at 93.
“Don’t ever underestimate yourself, set a high goal and strive for it,” he advised the much younger Emory students a few weeks ago. “Then, if you have a setback, understand why you had the failure, and set a different goal. Keep doing that until you run out of goals.
“But,” he concluded in a soft voice, “I don’t think you’ll ever run out of goals.”