Former president Jimmy Carter is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the leader of an international campaign that is tantalizingly close to eradicating a human disease for only the second time in history, and has overseen democratic elections across the planet.

But all those accomplishments pale in comparison to his lifelong love affair with his wife, Rosalynn.

It has grown year by year, the former president told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in late June.

And people enjoy hearing about it, he told the newspaper in 2016.

“It always gets applause when I mention it publicly. That’s the surest applause that we get.”

ExploreVideo: Mike Luckovich cartoon marks Carters’ 75th wedding anniversary

A savvy politician to the end, he appreciates what plays well publicly. But it was in private that their mutual love and respect for each other really emerged:

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2015: Jimmy Carter sneaks a kiss with Rosalynn while the couple works on a Habitat for Humanity build in Memphis in 2015. (Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com)

2015: Jimmy Carter sneaks a kiss with Rosalynn while the couple works on a Habitat for Humanity build in Memphis in 2015. (Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com)
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2015: Jimmy Carter sneaks a kiss with Rosalynn while the couple works on a Habitat for Humanity build in Memphis in 2015. (Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com)

The quick kiss they stole on a Habitat for Humanity build site in 2016 when they thought no one noticed them in their hard hats and heavy work clothes. The way they held hands to walk back for the evening service at little Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains hours after the tourists at his morning Sunday school class had all gone home. The nicknames that tended to slip out when they were among friends:

“Rosie,” he’d call her.

“My Jimmy” she’d call him.

He’d been her Jimmy pretty much from the moment when, as a teenager, she saw his photo hanging on his younger sister’s bedroom wall at the Carter family farm on the outskirts of Plains. By then he was away at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

No matter.

“I think I fell in love first with the photograph,” Rosalynn Carter said.

For him it took just one date. Jimmy Carter was home on leave from Annapolis and looking for something to do when he asked his little sister’s friend to a movie.

ExploreStory and Photos: Carters celebrated at 75th wedding anniversary bash in Plains
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Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Smith were married shortly after Carter's graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946. Carter's portrait is from sometime during his years in the Academy (1943-46) and Rosalynn's picture is from 1944, when she was 17. The couple is celebrating their 75th anniversary on July 7, 2021. (Jimmy Carter Library)

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Smith were married shortly after Carter's graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946. Carter's portrait is from sometime during his years in the Academy (1943-46) and Rosalynn's picture is from 1944, when she was 17. The couple is celebrating their 75th anniversary on July 7, 2021. (Jimmy Carter Library)
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Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Smith were married shortly after Carter's graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1946. Carter's portrait is from sometime during his years in the Academy (1943-46) and Rosalynn's picture is from 1944, when she was 17. The couple is celebrating their 75th anniversary on July 7, 2021. (Jimmy Carter Library)

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

“I went home and told my mother, ‘She’s the one. I’m going to marry her,’” he recalled during his annual town hall meeting with Emory University freshmen in 2014.

The students, some 70 years his junior and packed into gymnasium bleachers, burst into raucous applause. So did pretty much the whole world a few years later when the long-married couple appeared smooching on the giant scoreboard while taking in a Braves game at what was then the teams home of Turner Field. “Presidential Kiss Cam,” the Braves called it, and darned if the clip didn’t go viral. Everyone loved the Carters’ love story, it seemed, because it felt so real.

Like every married couple, they sometimes failed to see eye-to-eye. They wrote one book together — 1987′s “Everything to Gain,” about adjusting to their post-White House life — and then swore they’d never do that again. Even earlier, in 1953, they were seven years and three sons into their marriage when Jimmy Carter’s father died and he decided to end his Navy career and move back to Plains to take over the family farming business.

He decided, he later ruefully admitted, without discussing it with Rosalynn first.

“I was so mad I wouldn’t speak to Jimmy,” she recalled about the long drive back to Plains from upstate New York, site of their last Navy posting. Instead, she used their young boys as a go-between. “I’d say, ‘Jack, tell your daddy I need to go to the bathroom.’”

ExploreInterview: Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter talk about what their 75 years of love has meant
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In this undated photo, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter look at arrowheads in a field. (Carter family photo / Jimmy Carter Library)

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

In this undated photo, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter look at arrowheads in a field. (Carter family photo / Jimmy Carter Library)
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In this undated photo, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter look at arrowheads in a field. (Carter family photo / Jimmy Carter Library)

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

That hiccup aside, they never stopped being a team. When Jimmy entered politics, Rosalynn pushed aside her fear of public speaking to campaign for him for governor and president. When, as first lady of the United States she wanted to continue her work on behalf of the mentally ill, he created the President’s Commission on Mental Health that led to important legislation being enacted. As co-founders of The Carter Center in Atlanta, they spent decades forging peace and fighting diseases together in hotspots and forgotten places around the world. And every year, they spent a week hammering nails side-by-side for Habitat for Humanity.

Perhaps nothing more fully demonstrated the depth of their love than the prospect of losing it. In early 2018, Rosalynn Carter had major intestinal surgery that left her husband “deathly afraid.” He prayed for hours until the doctor came in and told him she’d survived the procedure. His own brain cancer diagnosis in 2015 had “rocked” her, her friends confided privately at the time; a year later, with his cancer in remission and their 70th wedding anniversary looming, Mrs. Carter recalled thinking about life without her Jimmy: “I didn’t know what I was going to do. That was … earthshaking.”

The playfulness of their relationship also was on full display during that interview. Theirs’ might well be a love affair for the ages, the former president suggested, but did you know she’d turned him down the first time he proposed? He was at Annapolis then and while she kept writing to him, “Mostly her letters were about all the boys she was going with.”

Rosalynn Carter just shook her head and rolled her eyes at that. But she could give as good as she got. Of all the stories involving his famous parishioners, former Maranatha pastor Brandon Patterson once said, his favorite concerned what happened in the moments after Carter became president.

“He’s standing on a balcony with Rosalynn, he looks over at her and says, ‘See, aren’t you glad you didn’t marry the other guy?’” Patterson told his congregation in 2018. “And Miss Rosalynn looks back at him and says, ‘Why? If I’d married him, he would be president.’”

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<p>U.S. President Jimmy Carter makes his inaugural speech after being sworn in on January 20, 1977 on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. David Hume Kennerly

Credit: 2006 David Hume Kennerly 1977 David Hume Kennerly 2007 David Hume Kennerly 2006 David Hume Kennerly 2006 David Hume Kennerly 2007 David Hume Kennerly 1977 David Hume Kennerly 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella 1977 CBS Photo Archive 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella Sahm Doherty

<p>U.S. President Jimmy Carter makes his inaugural speech after being sworn in on January 20, 1977 on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. David Hume Kennerly
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<p>U.S. President Jimmy Carter makes his inaugural speech after being sworn in on January 20, 1977 on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol. David Hume Kennerly

Credit: 2006 David Hume Kennerly 1977 David Hume Kennerly 2007 David Hume Kennerly 2006 David Hume Kennerly 2006 David Hume Kennerly 2007 David Hume Kennerly 1977 David Hume Kennerly 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella 1977 CBS Photo Archive 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella Sahm Doherty

Credit: 2006 David Hume Kennerly 1977 David Hume Kennerly 2007 David Hume Kennerly 2006 David Hume Kennerly 2006 David Hume Kennerly 2007 David Hume Kennerly 1977 David Hume Kennerly 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella 1977 CBS Photo Archive 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella 1977 Ron Galella Sahm Doherty