Rosalynn Carter’s Georgia hometown mourns loss of former first lady

Jimmy Carter’s wife remembered as a tireless advocate for the vulnerable, human rights and decency

PLAINS — Philip Kurland remembers wondering whether Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter actually lived here when he first opened his retail store in this tiny town in the 1990s. Just then, the former president and former first lady strolled into his shop off East Main Street, warmly embraced him and told him they were glad he was there.

“That took my breath away,” said Kurland, owner of the Plains Trading Post, which sells political memorabilia, including items from Carter’s campaigns.

A friendship between the three ensued. The Carters routinely visited his store. Kurland chatted with her about politics. And the former president prayed with Kurland when the entrepreneur was battling a serious illness that nearly killed him.

“In my heart, I consider the Carters part of my family,” said Kurland, a former publisher and direct mail marketing specialist who moved here from Maryland. “They took an active interest in everything we have done. And they care.”

Kurland is among many people in Rosalynn Carter’s hometown in rural Georgia mourning her death this week. They remember her as a champion for decency and human rights and someone who had a heart for the vulnerable, including people suffering from mental illnesses.

Rosalynn Carter, who turned 96 in August, died Sunday after the Carter family announced in May she was suffering from dementia. She and former President Jimmy Carter, her husband of 77 years, were born in Plains, living in the same house since 1961, save their time in the governor’s mansion and White House.

The couple was regularly seen around town for decades, often stopping to chat with locals. But they rarely ventured out this past year, as the former first lady’s health deteriorated and the former president, who turned 99 last month, entered home hospice care in February. They were last briefly seen in public in September during the annual peanut festival.

Kathie Roberts, a retired municipal worker from Plains, spoke about the former first lady as she prepared to hang holiday lights downtown Monday. She remembered meeting her years ago at the Plains Historic Inn.

“She was just so personable. She didn’t know me from Adam. She was just kind, friendly, warm,” Roberts said, calling Carter “such a symbol of the community.”

“She was a very accomplished first lady, almost like an unsung hero.”



Linda Campbell, a retired nurse from Plains who volunteered in Carter’s first presidential campaign, called the former first lady kind and caring as she worked alongside Roberts Monday in the center of town.

“We are sad but we know she is not suffering any more,” Campbell said. “She was a big advocate for mental health. And she loved her family very much.”



State Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, who has represented Sumter County and Plains for 15 years, visited Plains and the former president’s high school Monday, paying tribute.

“Everybody in Sumter County had a relationship with the Carters,” Sims said, adding about the former first lady: “She was always graceful, energetic, intelligent, decisive, and supportive of the public service sector of the community. Always there to help others, especially those who did not have the resources to sustain themselves.”

About 150 miles north in Atlanta, some people gathered at the Carter Presidential Center to pay respects. Flowers also were left at the statue of Jimmy Carter, and the sound of leaf blowers was constant in the fall air.

Michael and Sally Aboud, from Tucson and on their way to Charlottesville for Thanksgiving, were among those who stopped at the center. ”They did so much good in the world. They were awesome, an awesome couple,” she said of the Carters.

Paige Alexander, chief executive of the nonprofit Carter Center, spoke with reporters gathered outside the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, which together make up the presidential center in midtown. Rosalynn Carter in her last days “was comfortable with her family, so for us, that’s what mattered, because that is what she would have wanted,” Alexander said.

She said Carter was a full partner with the former president in everything they did at the Carter Center, from election observation to working on neglected tropical diseases, but that Rosalynn Carter’s lasting legacy will be her work on mental health issues.

”Her foresight addressing mental health illness, mental health in general, was something that for 50 years people weren’t talking about it. She wanted to destigmatize it,” said Alexander.

She said ceremonies celebrating Rosalynn Carter in Atlanta and Sumter County next week had been organized with the former first lady’s input. ”She was part of everything that has been organized, so we know we are carrying out her last wishes, and for us that is very important,” Alexander said.

In Plains, Kurland showed a visitor some of his favorite Carter campaign memorabilia. He held up a green campaign button that features a photo of Rosalynn Carter and declares, “Last Stop. Rosalynn Carter. Huntsville, Ala. 1980 Campaign.” He remembers the day she stepped inside his store, held that button in her hand and said, “I remember this well. I didn’t want to come home.”

Kurland showed off another campaign button that features photos of the Carters and says, “Join Jimmy & His Best Friend. Vote Democratic.”

The former first lady, Kurland remembered, was deeply knowledgeable about politics.

“The first time I talked politics with her my impression was, ‘Wow, she is really aware of what is going on.’ And then my second impression was, ‘Wow, she is blunt,’” he said. “She says what is on her mind … I always had the feeling that: ‘I am not going to repeat any of this or there could be a problem because she didn’t package it.’ She told you what she thought.”

Kurland added that Carter was “very much for people’s rights. And any politician that she thought was going to take advantage of some group — that would hit her … For one politician, I was lectured for a half an hour about why this particular fellow was wrong and … how he was destroying the country.”

Kurland wouldn’t identify the target of her criticism but said their conversation happened during the run-up to the 2020 presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

“She is here going on and on and President Carter says, ‘Rosie, I would like to go.’ And she turns around and smiles and says, ‘One more moment.’ She goes on for another five minutes and he says, ‘Rosie, I am ready to go,’” Kurland recalled.

“You can see he is antsy, and he just wants to move on. And she just turns around and says, ‘I am not finished.’ So he goes bolting out with the Secret Service. And she went on for another bit and finished what she had to say.”

Kurland said he was shocked and saddened when he learned of her death Sunday.

“And then it dawned on me that the way to see it is we all need to be a little kinder, give back, and she is passing the torch. We need to do more,” he said. “Her spirit will always be alive in Plains … Why not rejoice about the fact that she will be alive forever here.”

--Jeremy Redmon and Ernie Suggs reported from Plains and Jozsef Papp reported from Atlanta.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS



Credit: Jimmy Carter Library

Credit: Jimmy Carter Library