> RELATED: Ten of President Jimmy Carter's major announcements
The Nobel committee recognized what it called Carter's "untiring effort" to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts and promote democracy and human rights in the two decades since he left the White House. It also cited the former president's ''vital contribution'' to the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
Aside from a noon news conference, Carter shared the day quietly with his family and friends and fielded congratulatory phone calls from a weighty list of dignitaries including President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"I had a feeling of disbelief this morning, " Carter said. "I am delighted, humbled and very grateful that the Nobel committee has given me this recognition. I share this prize with everyone at the Carter Center. The last 20 years have been the most gratifying of all."
Carter speculated that he won the prize this year in a record field of 156 candidates because it was the 20th anniversary of the Carter Center. Among the leading nominees was another Georgian, former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, who was recognized with Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana for their 10-year effort to reduce former Soviet stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
Twenty-one American individuals and organizations have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize since it was first given in 1901 to Jean Henry Dunant, the Swiss founder of the Red Cross.
Carter joins one-time Georgia resident Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt on the list of American presidents who have won.
> RELATED: Learn more about the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta
The vigor of Carter's post-presidential career has impressed both former political foes and allies. A global traveler, Carter has worked to encourage democratic elections in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Even Friday, Carter was preparing to leave for Jamaica, where he will lead an international team of observers in Wednesday's national elections. Promoting democracy and "transparency" --- basically, ending corruption --- in government and business practices have been major Carter Center initiatives.
The Carter Center has come close to miraculous victories over intransigent diseases in Asia and Africa and worked to improve farming practices in poor nations.
Carter said almost all of the $1 million Nobel prize would go to the Carter Center. He added his life would not be altered by winning the prize and, keeping with a longtime practice, he plans to teach Sunday School this weekend.
The excitement in Plains on Friday had not been matched since Carter won the presidency in 1976. A hand-painted sign that read "Congratulations, Jimmy. We love you!" hung over the series of red-brick buildings that make up the commercial center on Main Street.
"Have you seen the news this morning?" asked Police Chief Gwen Dawkins. "I've been on CNN three times."
One sour note in the celebration came as the chairman of the Nobel committee said Carter's recognition was meant to send a message to the Bush administration.
The award "should be interpreted as a criticism of the line that the current administration has taken, '' said Gunnar Berge, the Nobel committee chairman. ''It's a kick in the leg to all that follow the same line as the United States.''
Others on the five-member committee said they were unhappy that the chairman appeared to be politicizing the prize.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer declined to respond to Berge's statement but said Bush had called Carter to congratulate him at 7 a.m.
''It was a friendly conversation, '' Fleischer said, adding that Bush was ''pleased to be able to congratulate a former American president on winning such a prestigious award.''
Carter said he hoped his receiving the prize would strengthen the quest for peaceful solutions to international conflicts.
He said he has already seen a change in the Bush administration's approach to the Iraq crisis and that the president's speech on Monday illustrated the White House's new determination to work through the United Nations to force the return of U.N. weapons inspectors.
"I listened with care the other night to President Bush's speech, and he said . . . we would indeed work through the United Nations and that we did not have any intention of working unilaterally."
Residents of Plains joined others around the globe in the opinion that the peace prize was long overdue.
"I'm so proud I could burst, " said Philip Kurland, who helps run the Plains Trading Post. "When I saw a Swedish crew filming me putting out the store signs, I knew this day would be different."
Carter's wife, Rosalynn, who co-founded the Carter Center, said she was shocked. "He's been nominated a few times, " she said. "We didn't even think about him getting it this time."
Since 1979, when as U.S. president he made heroic efforts to negotiate the Camp David accords --- still the benchmark agreement toward achieving Middle East peace --- Carter had been a nominee, usually considered on the short list.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shared the prize that year for their Camp David effort. The Nobel committee said a technicality had left Carter out in the cold --- he had not been nominated in time.
On Friday, frequent adversaries in the Middle East praised the Nobel committee for finally recognizing Carter.
''Mr. Carter deserves this prize, " said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, who shared the 1994 peace prize with the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. "He has struggled all of his life for peace and human rights all over the world.''
Arafat congratulated Carter late Friday by telephone from his besieged compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Bassam Abu Sharif, an assistant to Arafat, described the eight-minute conversation as ''very nice, very warm.''
Carter's presidency was marred by the hostage crisis in Iran. He left the White House with low approval ratings.
"He gets blamed for inflation and that he couldn't get the hostages out fast enough, " said Griffin Bell, attorney general in the Carter administration. "But the problem was to get them out alive. He could have acted hastily and they probably would have been dead. "
His supporters thought the 39th president was assured of winning the Nobel prize in 1994 when he almost single-handedly averted a major clash between North and South Korea. Many analysts credit Carter's involvement as the only reason war was averted.
Yet, for reasons known only to the Nobel committee, Carter seemed destined to be the bridesmaid, never the bride. Carter himself had bristled at suggestions that perhaps he had campaigned too openly for the honor and, in recent years, he seemed to downplay his interest in capturing the prize.
This year, his chances of winning did not seem especially high although Carter made headlines in May when he made a historic trip to Cuba to meet with President Fidel Castro. In an unprecedented speech broadcast live on Cuban television, Carter openly criticized the lack of democracy and human rights on the Communist island.
Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said Friday that Carter's prize was well-deserved.
''This award is an expression of just appreciation of his moral, ethical qualities, '' Roque said.
The Nobel committee decided on a winner last week after months of secret deliberations. Speculation on who might win centered on sending the right message in a post-Sept. 11 world and international concern about a possible U.S. military strike against Iraq.
Last year's award was shared by the United Nations and its secretary-general, Kofi Annan.
In an interview Friday afternoon, Carter said he considers his work at the Carter Center his most significant achievement. He said he decided to "capitalize on the influence I had as former president" to end human suffering.
In its citation, the Nobel committee said: "In a situation currently marked by threats of the use of power, Carter has stood by the principles that conflicts must as far as possible be resolved through mediation and international cooperation based on international law, respect for human rights, and economic development."
Still, on a day when Carter's accomplishments in the developing world were seemingly validated, some asked why that success was perhaps unmatched at home. The ambitious Atlanta Project, a grass-roots effort to improve the city's neighborhoods, was one of Carter's few undertakings that turned out not to be a resounding success.
"Everyone wants to volunteer for an event when a former president is there, whether it's building a house or knocking on doors, " Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley said. "The initial enthusiasm that President Carter brought to the Atlanta Project couldn't be sustained."
But to his fans, Oct. 11, 2002, was a day long overdue.
"I thought he had it coming for a long time, " said Pennsylvanian Harry Brubaker, who was visiting Plains on Friday. "I'm very, very proud of him."
Staff writers Jill Venojska, Craig Nelson and news services contributed to this article.