Acquaintances, friends recall Rosalynn Carter’s grace, determination

From Plains to Atlanta, people comment on the life and legacy of former first lady and mental health advocate Rosalynn Carter.

At first, Jan Still Lindeman was nervous. It was the winter of 1974 and the young Georgia college student was interviewing the state’s first lady, Rosalynn Carter, at the Georgia Governor’s Mansion. But Lindeman’s anxiety didn’t last long.

“It felt perfectly comfortable because she was a lady that made you feel comfortable,” said Lindeman.

She was studying at what was then West Georgia College, and had recently started a college radio program called “Women’s Perspective.”

“It didn’t seem rushed,” Lindeman said, but instead warm and gracious. “I didn’t get the sense that this was something she had to do, sit down with this little college girl.”

The details have faded, but most of all Lindeman recalls they shared a passion for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. She also remembers Rosalynn looking right at her. “She talked to you. She didn’t talk around you. In that soft voice, but there was nothing timid about it.”

Jan Still Lindeman with Rosalynn Carter in December 1974 at Georgia's Governor's Mansion.
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After Lindeman sent Rosalynn a copy of the radio program, she was delightfully surprised by a handwritten thank you note and a couple of gifts from Rosalynn — a coffee table book with photos of the Governor’s Mansion, and a scarf with a wavy print of brown and gold peanuts.

Since then, Lindeman, who is now retired and lives in Gwinnett County, has watched with pride as the Carters ascended to the White House. Rosalynn remained a tireless humanitarian, championing mental health care and fighting for women’s rights.

As tributes pour in from around the globe, Lindeman said the accolades have brought her back to that meeting all those years ago where the two women’s rights advocates chatted and were photographed standing next to a Christmas tree.

“She was genuine, she was real,” said Lindeman. “I think she was just a wonderful example for all of us.”

Here are more stories of how Rosalynn Carter has touched others:

“The epitome of gracefulness”

Beverly Kievman Copen met Rosalynn Carter after becoming Georgia’s first film representative from 1972-73. She was tasked with writing a marketing plan for bringing motion pictures, commercials, and TV programs to Georgia, with the strong initiative of then-Governor Jimmy Carter.

The Department of Industry and Trade then hired her as a consultant for a year or more to implement the plan.

“That is when I met Rosalynn Carter,” she said, “Rosalynn was the epitome of gracefulness and genuine caring, and yet stepped into her roles as they changed and developed. In a receiving line, for example, in Hollywood, she quietly deferred to her husband when it was a man, and was more open with comments when it was a female. She was soft-spoken much of the time, but when she wanted to be heard, she used a different tone.”

“She was, indeed, the perfect partner for Jimmy,” said Copen of Rome, Ga.

Copen said Rosalynn handled the details of an event gently and let her husband shine.

“Perhaps what I am feeling is that she was a role model for myself and so many other women of power and influence. I only hope she knew it,” she said.

Kimberly Minor and Former first lady Rosalynn Carter

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Pearls

A big component of Rosalynn Carter’s work on mental health was breaking the stigma and spreading awareness. The Carter Center created paid fellowships under her name for journalists to learn about and elevate reporting on mental health.

That’s where Kimberly Minor came in.

Minor, a Lithonia native, studied journalism and shared her expertise on how to report mental health. When the fellows convened with the former first lady in attendance at the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism forum in September 2013, Minor was chosen to give the keynote address.

Minor was honored to address the current and future leaders in journalism, she said. With Rosalynn, she had an example.

“As I stood beside her,” Minor said, “I was deeply inspired by her dedication to breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness and her efforts to educate through the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program.”

Minor still keeps the photo from that day. “This photograph is more than a memento,” she said. “It is a testament to the enduring impact of Mrs. Carter’s work and the fellowship program that continues to shape the narrative of mental health in our communities.”

She added, “Amidst the gravity of our work, in reflection, I can’t help but chuckle over our matching pearls and polka dots. It seems great minds think alike in fashion as well as in mission.”

In this photo Rosalynn Carter, left, listens as Miriam Goodfriend's grandfather Cantor Isaac Goodfriend, right, performs the national anthem at Jimmy Carter's presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, 1977. (PHOTO courtesy of Miriam Goodfriend)

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A legacy that saves lives

Rosalynn Carter’s influence has pervaded Miriam Goodfriend’s life even though she visited the first lady just once and doesn’t remember it. She was two years old.

Goodfriend’s grandfather, Isaac Goodfriend, was a Holocaust survivor and Atlanta cantor who worked with Jimmy Carter on antisemitism and issues relating to Israel. At Carter’s presidential inauguration ceremony he sang the national anthem. Miriam Goodfriend’s grandparents and the Carters continued to meet for years afterwards. So when Isaac Goodfriend wrote a book, the Carters welcomed the entire family to Plains to congratulate him. All of them in the Carters’ home, capped by Miriam, were a sort of sign that this family that came close to extinction was now flourishing.

Miriam has the photos and knows all of that well. But instead of going into her grandfather’s line of work, she went into Rosalynn’s. Miriam works on mental health research and policy in Atlanta, currently at the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition of Georgia. Mental illness, including postpartum depression, is the second greatest risk factor for maternal mortality, she says.

Before Rosalynn, says Miriam, “I mean, there really was no conversation. The shame — usually mental health issues, unfortunately, were very criminalized.”

Miriam and her colleagues now bring in grants, attend forums, and have conversations because of Rosalynn’s work at the Carter Center.

“I like to think she would be the mother that would bring love and support to those who wouldn’t have that opportunity,” said Goodfriend.

“We’re going to miss her dearly, but the beauty is that their legacy lives far beyond” even what the Carter Center does, Goodfriend said. “Every day it’s saving lives and educating and letting people know that they’re not alone.”

Jonathan Reckford, right, listens to Rosalynn Carter, left, speak on the first day of a "build" event in 2018 for Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization the Carters supported after they left the White House.  (PHOTO courtesy of Habitat for Humanity International/Jason Asteros)

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Building

The first time Jonathan Reckford met Rosalynn Carter he was applying for a job and needed her and her husband’s blessing. He was the Habitat for Humanity board’s top choice to be its new CEO. So he showed up in Plains in 2005 to meet the Carters.

He got through security clearance at the Secret Service office there, which was bigger than the house itself. Then he approached the home to be ushered in to his hostess and host.

But to his surprise, there was no ushering.

“They had no staff,” Reckford recalled.

The Carters came to the door and welcomed him themselves. Inside, the couple sat down together holding hands. “It was, in retrospect, not surprising at all,” he said.

Reckford got to know Rosalynn Carter much better in the 18 years since. She was “Always so soft-spoken, so gracious, and so kind,” Reckford said, “and yet, such a force at the same time. And that’s an unusual combination.”

As the years went on, he spent more time with Rosalynn Carter, including at “builds” where the reporters could see the Carters joining in the work of building the homes the nonprofit is known for. She would be in tears watching new homeowners take over their houses, Reckford said, and spoke personally to each one at the end.

He wasn’t surprised to learn that before his time with the organization, at a build in New York City, Rosalynn slept in a church dorm with all the other volunteers after she learned that one couple had given up their honeymoon to come help, and the Carters gave the couple their private room.

He recalled when she had negative reactions, she didn’t rant. “I saw her, I think, upset in different ways — at the conditions in some of the places in terms of how people were living. But she was always incredibly gracious when I was around her.”

Once at a private dinner with the Carters, Reckford was embarrassed to realize his young daughter was reading something in her lap. Rosalynn Carter just laughed and said her husband did the same thing.

Her combination of gracefulness and will is what Reckford thinks drives her legacy.

“You can fight hard for things that matter, but that doesn’t have to be ‘instead of’ being kind and respectful,” Reckford said. “And I think she modeled that so well.”

Former first lady Rosalynn and President Jimmy Carter visit Professor Jacobus (Jaap) de Roode and students at his greenhouse at Emory University. photo credit: Malia Escobar.

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Credit: custom Malia Escobar.

Butterflies

Jacobus (Jaap) de Roode, a professor of biology at Emory University, connected with Rosalynn Carter to discuss the plight of monarch butterflies and other butterflies. He said he was honored to join the Rosalynn Carter Butterfly Trail as a board member in 2019.

“Mrs. Carter was a wonderful person to work with. She has been a great inspiration, adding this whole new organization to her many initiatives and responsibilities,” he said.

“She always showed an enormous dedication to learn, and bring together many different people from different backgrounds to reach goals, in this case, recreating native habitat to help pollinators. She was so normal and down-to-earth, and speaking with her was always like speaking to a peer. I really cannot think of a more humble, dedicated, effective and warm first lady. We will miss her sorely, but will continue to build gardens in her honor.”

Rosalynn Carter is seen smiling with Nancy Spice at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia, on Christmas Day in 2019.

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Credit: Nancy Spice

A ‘real stickler’ of facts

At first, about a decade ago, Nancy Spice sat in the pews near the back of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains. The next thing she knew, she was seated next to Rosalynn. They quickly became friends, she said.

Whenever Rosalynn spoke at Maranatha, the church would become silent and listen. She even corrected her husband at times as he taught Sunday school, Spice said, who added Rosalynn was a “real stickler on the correct facts.”

Rosalynn commanded attention even with her soft-spoken voice.

“A gentle powerhouse!” said Spice.

About five years ago, Spice and her husband started cooking meals for the Carters several times a year.

“Rosalynn would then feel obligated to send us a thank you card, so I have around 16 of her gracious writings. It took a bit, but I finally convinced her that part of the gift was not having to write a thank you! She was eventually relieved!”

She stopped making the meals in recent months once Jimmy Carter went into hospice care at his home. But the couple still wanted the homemade cookies and Spice happily obliged. The last batch of raisin-pecan oatmeal cookies was shipped over in early October around Carter’s 99th birthday.

A week earlier, she saw them together for the last time when the couple surprised the town, showing up in a vehicle as part of the parade for the annual Plains Peanut Festival. While running after their car, Spice yelled a “Hello” to Rosalynn.

“Rosalynn meant to me what was right in the world!” she added.

— Staff writer David Aaro contributed to this article.