In Memory of Rosalynn Carter
Four days after she turned 88, Rosalynn Carter had her “official” birthday party in Plains. She’d long resisted any public fuss surrounding her big day; this time, though, she’d relented when her husband, Jimmy, and friends in their tiny hometown suggested it could be a fundraiser for some nonprofits close to her heart.
Three of their four children were waiting at the Buffalo Cafe on Main Street, plus many of their grandchildren, a fact the guest of honor happily noted in the night’s only speech. Then she cut her cake and confided that the gathering wasn’t all about her.
“Oh, they all really came to see him,” she said quietly, watching her husband of then-69 years exchange hugs and hearty handshakes with most of the 100 guests. “But I’ll take it.”
That wise sense of perspective was as extraordinary as the life she lived. Even before Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976 and the new first lady started showing up at Presidential Cabinet meetings, she had become the essential, if lower-profile “other half” of nearly everything he did.
When Jimmy left the Navy and returned to Plains to run the family peanut business, it was Rosalynn who kept the books. After he left the White House in defeat in early 1981, Rosalynn spent decades working side by side with him to help build the Carter Center and to smash all previous notions about how much good “retired” first couples could accomplish.
But Rosalynn Carter also blazed her own trail. She used her prominent perch as the wife of a governor and president to talk about vital issues which others wouldn’t, most notably mental illness and equality for women. And she kept talking about them, even as she passed 90 and new controversies erupted around “old” causes she’d championed like the importance of immunization and vaccinations.
In awarding both Carters the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999, Bill Clinton lauded their accomplishments together — but also took pains to highlight her singular impact.
“Just as Eleanor Roosevelt will be remembered for her work on human rights, Rosalynn Carter will always be remembered as a pioneer on mental health and a champion of our children,” Clinton said.
Rosalynn Carter, 96, died Sunday. She will be buried in front of the modest ranch house in Plains they built in 1961 and always returned to, and never really left save for their stints in what Jimmy Carter humorously termed “government housing.” It was the first home they’d ever owned after Jimmy’s peripatetic military career had taken them all over the country.
Rosalynn hadn’t wanted to move back, but her reluctance after military life was nothing compared to her despair in 1980.
“I was hesitant, not at all sure that I could be happy after the dazzle of the White House and the years of stimulating political battles,” she wrote in her memoir.
It turned out she was just getting started on the next remarkable chapter.
Back to the beginning
She was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith in Plains Aug. 18, 1927.
To nearly everyone, she was “Rosalynn.” To her husband, in less formal moments or among friends, invariably it was “Rosie.”
She literally was the girl next door. The eldest of four children, Rosalynn was born at home, where their next-door neighbors were her future husband’s family. Jimmy Carter once mused he first saw her at three days old. Soon after, the Carters moved to a large farm located about a mile away in the Archery community. Plains might have been small, but Archery was even smaller.
Growing up, one of Rosalynn’s best friends was Ruth Carter, Jimmy’s younger sister. When she was 13, Rosalynn’s father, Wilburn, died of leukemia; the nurse who’d attended him during his illness was Jimmy’s mother Lillian Carter.
Wilburn Smith had been a farmer and town councilman who’d also owned the very first auto shop in Sumter County. His wife Frances had mostly been a stay-at-home mother. To support her family after his death, she worked as a dressmaker and grocery store clerk, and later, at the post office. Rosalynn, by her own recollection, was “painfully shy,” a straight-A student obsessed with doing everything perfectly. She wound up valedictorian of her senior class at Plains High School. But the shyness and need to be perfect followed her into adulthood.
In the fall of 1945, Rosalynn enrolled at Georgia Southwestern College (now Georgia Southwestern State University) in nearby Americus. Around that same time, Jimmy Carter was home on leave from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and got stood up for a date with a local beauty queen. Cruising around Plains looking for something to do, he saw his little sister’s friend standing on the steps of the Methodist church. He was three years her senior, and they didn’t know each other very well. Still, when he asked her to a movie, she said yes.
“I think I fell in love first with the photograph” of him on Ruth’s wall, she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2006.
Jimmy Carter recalled to a gym full of cheering Emory University students in 2014: “I went home and told my mother, ‘She’s the one. I’m going to marry her.’”
Within a few months of the first date, over Christmas break, he proposed and she turned him down — “It was all too quick,” she recalled, and anyway, she’d promised her late father she would get a college education.
Some six weeks later, he tried again, and on July 7, 1946, a month after Jimmy graduated from Annapolis, the couple married at Plains Methodist Church, where Rosalynn’s family worshipped.
In the years that followed, they were a traditional post-war couple, moving wherever Jimmy’s fast-rising Naval career took them. They were stationed in Norfolk, Va., and Honolulu, Hawaii, where Rosalynn learned to dance the hula while Jimmy played the ukulele. Three sons were born over the next few years: John William in 1947, James Earl III (“Chip”) in 1950, and Donnell Jeffrey in 1952.
“I was a total wife. I cooked and took care of the babies,” she recalled in 2006.
In 1952, Lieutenant Carter was accepted into Hyman Rickover’s newly formed and elite nuclear submarine program, and the young family moved to Schenectady, N.Y. But the following year, Jimmy’s father died of cancer, and he resigned his commission — without consulting with Rosalynn — and moved the family back to Plains so he could run the family peanut business. On the long drive back from upstate New York, she barely spoke to him.
“I sulked for about a year,” Rosalynn Carter told the AJC. “I was very young and I had become very independent. We were going home, and I knew that my mother was going to tell me what to do.
“But that’s how I thought marriage was,” she added. “That’s how I was raised.”
Gradually, the marriage began morphing into a more mutually supportive partnership. While Jimmy took over the Carter farms, Rosalynn threw herself into helping him turn it into a growing peanut warehouse and farm supply business.
“It was not too long before I knew as much or more about the business on paper than he did,” she recalled.
By 1961, the couple were owners of a new, custom-built home who played golf and socialized with a wide circle of family and friends.
“I had to admit yes, I was enjoying this life,” Rosalynn recalled in her 1984 memoir, “First Lady from Plains.”
Once again, though, her husband had something else up his sleeve. A run for the state Senate.
Again, she threw herself into his choice, taking on more responsibility at the warehouse while Jimmy campaigned. One afternoon, she took off work and knocked on every door in Plains to talk up his candidacy, and later campaigned across the state.
It wasn’t easy at first for the once shy and perfectionist schoolgirl. When she had to make a speech, she’d memorize it word-for-word and request a podium, so she could hang on, white-knuckle tight, with both hands.
Even becoming first lady of Georgia in 1971 presented a new set of hurdles. She missed her family and friends back in Plains and felt trapped by the demands of her unelected job. Sometimes, just to gain a moment of privacy, she’d lock herself inside one of the bathrooms at the imposing white-columned governor’s mansion on West Paces Ferry Road, only to have the maids knock on the door and ask if she was all right.
“The move to the White House later was much easier for me compared to this initial move,” she wrote in her memoir.
But she grew into the role, putting her visibility to use, helping get a work-release center for female prison inmates built and pushing for reforms to the mental health treatment system in the state legislature. Her interest in the latter stemmed from a distant cousin she had known as a child and who was “in and out of the state mental institution.”
“I wanted to take mental illnesses and emotional disorders out of the closet,” she wrote, “to let people know it is all right to admit having a problem without the fear of being called crazy.”
She began coming into her own.
“She had to learn her own voice, how to project, how to make a speech, how to win people over, how to deal with legislators on her issues,” her son, Chip, recalled.
By the time Jimmy ran for president in 1976, the shy girl and dutiful wife had been replaced by a confident, completely engaged campaigner.
“I loved it,” Rosalynn Carter said at the 2015 dinner of a group of political memorabilia collectors that she and her husband faithfully attended every year during the Plains Peanut Festival. “I traveled to all but two states and made friends and learned so much about our country I had never known. And we always from the beginning knew we were going to win.”
Becoming first lady
Even before her husband was elected president, Rosalynn Carter made clear she’d be a different kind of first lady. Unlike any of her predecessors, she’d made her own campaign promise: To guide legislative reform on behalf of the nation’s mentally ill. Five weeks after Inauguration Day, the President’s Commission on Mental Health was established with Rosalynn serving as honorary chairperson. She was no mere figurehead. The commission later recommended a sweeping new Mental Health Systems Act that called for more community centers and important changes in health insurance coverage, Medicare and Medicaid. In 1979, Carter became only the second first lady to testify before Congress (Eleanor Roosevelt was the first), when she spoke on behalf of the Act. It passed the following year.
She also was an advocate for older Americans and lobbying Congress on acts to do away with mandatory age retirement in the federal workplace and boost funding for elderly services. And, for women, she made appearances in states that hadn’t yet ratified the Equal Rights Amendment.
In 1978, Time magazine proclaimed the once painfully shy Plains schoolgirl the “second most powerful” person in the country.
Not everyone approved. Critics attacked her for “telling Jimmy what to do” at a time when the country was still debating the need for the Equal Rights Amendment. And they bashed her for regularly attending Cabinet meetings and National Security Council briefings — things no other first lady had ever done — and serving as an official U.S. envoy on a trip to Latin America.
Even the new first couple’s decision on Inauguration Day to disembark from their limousine and walk part of the way to the White House in below-freezing temperatures wasn’t universally hailed. What many Americans found charming in a small town Southern way, others, particularly Washington elites, slammed as unsophisticated.
It was a perception that would plague the Carters throughout their four years in Washington, when everything from their alcohol policy (no liquor was served at the White House, only wine) to their decision to send 9-year-old Amy to public school was run through the rural rube meter.
“What happened was a lack of respect,” said historian Barbara McGowan of Ripon College. “I think it was particularly difficult for her during the time she was first lady.”
To Rosalynn Carter, who’d campaigned all over the country for her husband’s election, the criticism made little sense. Jimmy had very publicly described her then as “an equal extension of myself.” She went to cabinet meetings so she could take notes on policies and other things the American public might ask her to explain.
“I said not a word at the cabinet meetings,” she said at that 2015 dinner of memorabilia collectors. “But I could tell him what I thought.”
Nothing about this was very new where they were concerned.
“Jimmy and I had always worked side by side,” she recalled in her memoir. “It’s a tradition in Southern families, and one that is not seen in any way demeaning to the man.”
What ultimately dealt the Carter presidency its fatal blow, though, was the Iran hostage crisis. In November 1979, Iranian militants had stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and taken hostages. For more than a year, the country looked on with growing frustration and embarrassment. Efforts to free the 52 Americans through peaceful negotiations and a disastrous military rescue mission foundered. Rosalynn hit the campaign trail in 1980 for his reelection bid against Republican nominee Ronald Reagan.
“I knew we weren’t going to win,” she admitted 35 years later at the memorabilia collectors dinner.
“Rosalynn!” her husband feigned shock and an effort to shush her.
“Well I did. I just knew we were not going to win,” she continued. “Because of the hostages. If it hadn’t been for the hostages, I think he would have been elected.”
And once again, Rosalynn Carter was heading back to Plains unhappy.
Free to be unretired
It rained buckets on the January 1981 day that the Carters officially returned home to Plains. Some three thousand people had turned out to throw them a welcome home party on Main Street. The now-former first couple danced on a makeshift stage, the gloomy skies a match for Rosalynn’s mood over her husband’s loss.
When a campaign aide congratulated him for not being bitter, she responded, “I’m bitter enough for both of us.”
Once again, though, she chose constructive activity over sulking. Soon, they were part of the regular rotation of volunteers at their church, him mowing the lawn and her cleaning the bathrooms
They each wrote a memoir. His, “Keeping Faith” (1982), and hers, “First Lady from Plains” (1984). The couple collaborated on a joint book, “Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life,” in 1987.
In 1982, they founded the Carter Center in Atlanta, which was designed to “wage peace, fight disease and build hope” worldwide. Rosalynn Carter served as vice chairperson of the board of trustees through 2005; just as important, she went pretty much everywhere her husband did, whether it was fighting Guinea worm in Africa, observing tense elections in Latin America or trying to improve grassroots election procedures in China.
Her commitment to mental health issues deepened and became a key component of the Carter Center’s work, with multiple programs, including some for family caregivers.
In 1987, she founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University, her alma mater. It provides training and research on issues related to those who care for people suffering from mental illness as well as other long-term disabilities.
“She’s one of the most influential figures in the world in the last 30 years in changing attitudes about mental health and dealing with the issues of mental health,” Jerome Short, associate professor of psychology at George Mason University, said of Rosalynn Carter several years ago.
The former first couple’s involvement with Habitat for Humanity initially vaulted them back into the public eye — and onto “most admired” lists. The resulting national press coverage of a former president and first lady wearing jeans and swinging hammers to build housing for the poor around the world provided a huge publicity boost for the previously low-on-the-radar nonprofit organization.
Rosalynn Carter made clear she got back at least as much as she put into the process of building homes.
“Once you get involved with Habitat you can’t give it up,” she said during a break from building a house in Memphis in November 2015.
For all of their accomplishments, the Carters’ 77-year marriage may have been their greatest achievement. To the outside world, the thought of one without the other was unimaginable. To the Carters themselves, that thought was unbearable.
In February 2018, Rosalynn Carter underwent surgery to remove “troubling scar tissue” from a portion of her small intestine, according to a statement released by the Carter Center. Jimmy Carter seemed simultaneously tired and grateful shortly after when he recounted the rocky hours he’d endured during his 90-year-old wife’s procedure.
Doctors “didn’t give me a lot of hope before the operation was over,” Carter said. “I was deathly afraid. I prayed for three hours,” and was relieved when she finally pulled through.
Three years earlier, it had been her turn to bear the fear. In May 2015, doctors had discovered a cancerous lesion on Jimmy Carter’s liver that spread to his brain. Privately, friends confided she was rocked by the diagnosis; but in public, she never let on or missed an opportunity to let him know that as always, she was right by his side.
“Where’s my Jimmy?” she wondered aloud on the night of her 88th birthday party, waiting for her glad-handing husband to make it to the front of the crowded restaurant to help her cut her birthday cake.
“The best thing I ever did was marry Rosalynn,” Carter had reflected during a press event a few years earlier. “That’s the pinnacle of my life.”
In February of this year, the Carter family announced that Jimmy was entering home hospice care in Plains. In May, the family announced that Rosalynn had dementia, adding that she was “enjoying spring in Plains and visits with loved ones.” On Friday, November 17, the family announced that Rosalynn was also entering hospice care.
Rosalynn Carter is survived by President Carter and their children Amy, Chip, Jack and Jeff; 11 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.