Pres. Carter’s friends in Plains keeping the faith

Plains — Two full days had passed since Jimmy Carter’s bombshell announcement of his cancer diagnosis, and still, many of those closest to him here hadn’t yet spoken with him directly.

Not the current pastor of his longtime church, where he’s scheduled to teach Sunday School twice more this month; not the friend who was Amy Carter’s fourth grade teacher, or another good friend whose house is his frequent weekend hangout.

Boze Godwin, at least, had heard something from the former governor and president. A pharmacist and Plains’s self-effacing mayor of 34 years, Godwin had sent Carter a supportive email upon hearing the bad news. Carter emailed him back, but that’s all the mayor would reveal.

“I don’t want to tell what it said,” Godwin sighed and swiveled in a battered old black leather chair inside Plains Pharmacy on Main Street. A pause, to allow a small smile to flit across his face. “He’s a very strongwilled person. When he sets his mind to something, he doesn’t take no for an answer very well.”

Mr. Jimmy doesn't take no for an answer. That's what they're very much leaning on these days in Plains, a town of some 750 people, who, if they aren't all related by blood, are bound together by their first-hand knowledge of Jimmy Carter as an exceedingly kind person, but also as a canny, tenacious survivor. If anyone can turn back a medical diagnosis they don't know all the particulars of yet, only that it sounds pretty bad, it's him, they say.

“He’s a very smart man,” said Jill Stuckey, who now owns the house where Carter’s parents rented a room as newlyweds. On Saturday nights when they’re in town, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter often drop by Stuckey’s house, where a bedroom door plaque winkingly proclaims, “The Conception Room,” in honor of you-know-who.

“If there’s any way there can be a fight,” Stuckey, 54, insisted, “He will do everything he can to be in it and to win it.”

No one here needs reminding that Carter’s nearly 91. Or that cancer is different, tougher in its own way than taking down Guinea Worm Disease or brokering peace between Israel and Egypt, both of which he’s done. Just look at Wednesday’s announcement, and the subsequent frenzy. The terse, three-sentence statement was sent out by The Carter Center late in the afternoon. “Recent liver surgery revealed that I have cancer that now is in other parts of my body,” the former president announced. Twitter instantly blew up and public messages of support rolled in from President Obama and Georgia’s two Republican senators. On Thursday, TV news trucks lined the block-and-a-half of Main Street that constitutes Plains’s downtown business district.

By Friday, the TV reporters were mostly gone. But inside the Plains Historic Inn, Jan Williams was still fielding phone calls from people suddenly desperate to know if and when Carter would be teaching Sunday School next at Maranatha Baptist Church. Oh, and could they book one of the lovingly restored inn’s seven rooms for a Saturday night (Short answer: No. Nothing available before November).

“A lady called and said, ‘Well, I need to know if he’s still going to teach on the 23rd (of August), and I said, ‘M’am, only God knows that,’” said Williams, who runs the inn and, as a member of the Maranatha congregation, humorously walks visitors through a list of do’s-and-don’t’s before Carter’s class. “I’d been talking about his faith all day (to reporters), so I figured it was time to bring God into it.”

Even before she taught the Carters’ youngest child, Amy, at Westside Elementary School, Williams had one of those only-in-Plains type connections to Jimmy: He’d dated her mother-in-law way back in high school. Yet like most people here, she found out he had cancer the same way the rest of the world did.

On the one hand, that’s pretty much standard operating procedure for Plains, where the man nearly everyone calls “Jimmy” or “Mr. Jimmy” has lived since 1961 in the same simple ranch house when he’s not traveling the world. Board meetings of the nonprofit Plains Better Hometown Program (PBH) are arranged (and rearranged) around the couple’s schedules, in consultation with The Carter Center, which also disseminates news of things that it might otherwise fall to friends and family to have to talk about.

”I think they’re protecting the town in a way,” said Nelle Ariail, who’s remained close to the couple since her late husband, Dan, became Maranatha’s pastor in 1982. They both accompanied the Carters to Norway when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. “If we don’t know anything, we can truthfully say, ‘I don’t know.’”

On the other hand, the knowledge that the Carters weren’t taking too many phone calls initially added to an undercurrent of quiet concern here, where people were respecting their privacy. It’s publicly balanced by that shared sensibility of Carter as someone who sees a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and instantly starts devising ways to knock it down.

“He’s been preparing for this all his life,” Stuckey said.

She meant a battle with cancer, of course. Carter's father, brother and two sisters all died of pancreatic cancer, so he's spent his whole adult life eating right, exercising and otherwise trying to reduce his risk factors, friends say. But Stuckey could just as easily have been referring to Carter's history of waging — and winning — longshot campaigns, starting with his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. He spent two years studying at other colleges before finally getting to Annapolis. After he lost the 1966 gubernatorial race, not many people thought he'd ever win that office, Williams said. But he did and became president to boot, she chuckled. And when he founded The Carter Center and set out to eradicate Guinea worm disease in 1986, there were some 3.5 million cases worldwide. By this year, the total number of identified cases was down to well less than 100, putting Guinea worm on track to become just the second human disease in history, after smallpox, to be eradicated.

Carter’s even fought to keep tiny, out-of-the-way Plains robust. The population swells by as much as 50 percent on weekends when he teaches Sunday School — one reason he still does it so much, he told the AJC last year. When PBH was renovating the inn that caters to visitors to the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, the ex-president helped dismantle two old staircases and replaned the boards for a gleaming new staircase in his home woodworking shop. And so far, next Saturday’s 88th birthday celebration for Rosalynn Carter that’s a fundraiser for several organizations here, is still a go.

Mr. Jimmy doesn’t take no for an answer.

"He wants to see the town thrive, he believes it will," Stuckey said. "That's why he and Mrs. Carter chose their burial site to be in Plains," where the public can visit it.

She smiled broadly.

“And in 20 years when it’s needed, it will be.”

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