That beloved hometown held a private memorial service Wednesday for Rosalynn Carter, who died this month at 96 after battling dementia.
Credit: Miguel Martinez
Credit: Miguel Martinez
Jack Carter fondly remembered his mother taking care of him and his siblings while their father was away serving in the U.S. Navy. She was good with numbers and was someone “you could trust when things got out of hand,” he said.
He recalled a family camping trip when he and his brothers “were able to transfer an amazing amount of sand from the North Carolina Outer Banks into the tent, and mom finally broke. She was not going to spend another night in the tent.”
“So, Dad had to buy a hotel room. And I remember the price vividly because he said it over and over. It was $28,” he recalled, eliciting laughter from fellow mourners.
Chuckling, he added: “Dad got used to Mom disagreeing with him because she was really good at it. And she became a partner in the true sense of the word, where they had equal footing.”
Moments later, Josh Carter remembered how his grandmother loved getting on the floor and playing peekaboo with babies, even into her 80s. She also enjoyed watching her grandchildren play at Walt Disney World, where her favorite ride was the Tower of Terror.
“And it became pretty clear that a lot of the Secret Service did not share this opinion,” he said. “So as we got older, one of my favorite things about Disney was hanging back within earshot of the agents negotiating about who was going to go on the ride.”
Growing up, he watched as his grandparents built the Carter Center in Atlanta and as they championed democracy abroad, sought to eradicate diseases and worked to reduce the stigma concerning mental illnesses.
“She saw people in forgotten corners of forgotten places as people who have hopes and dreams and are worthy of love,” he said.
“She spent the rest of her life improving the lives of people across the globe — to free them from oppression, eliminate crippling diseases and to help people with mental illnesses live healthy, fulfilling lives. And she knew that was the best time of her life.”
Georgia Southwestern State University’s Concert Choir and the Southwest Civic Chorus performed at the service. Pianist David Osborne played “Imagine,” John Lennon’s song about a utopian world. Country music stars Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood sang the same ballad at Tuesday’s tribute service for her on Emory University’s campus in Atlanta.
Wednesday’s service was held at the Carters’ house of worship, Maranatha Baptist Church. Founded in the late 1970s, the church’s name, “Maranatha,” means “Lord, Come!” in Aramaic.
The Carters have strong connections to Maranatha. The former first lady served as a deacon, taught Sunday school there and founded a food ministry for needy families. In addition to teaching Sunday school, the former president helped with odd jobs, including mowing the grass. He crafted a wooden cross that stands in the sanctuary and made wooden trays for collecting offerings.
The Rev. Tony Lowden, the Carters’ personal pastor, movingly delivered the eulogy for his “friend, the woman that I loved, a woman that I am going to miss.” Quoting Proverbs 31:10, he called Rosalynn Carter a “virtuous woman.”
“Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had a world full of first ladies like that?” Lowden said. Tears trickled down his cheeks as he concluded.
In her memoir, the former first lady wrote about growing up in Plains amid the Great Depression. The family grew its own food.
“Times were hard then,” she wrote. “As children, however, we were unaware of any hardships.”
Her father, Wilburn Edgar Smith, ran a farm outside of town, drove the school bus and owned an auto repair shop. Her mother, Frances Allethea Murray, was an accomplished seamstress who sold milk and butter to support her children after her husband died from leukemia. She later worked at the Plains Post Office for 29 years.
Rosalynn Carter described herself as “painfully shy, an introvert,” who as a teenager avoided unhappiness about her father’s death by burying herself in books and schoolwork.
Her parents named her sister, Lillian Allethea, after Jimmy Carter’s mother. And Rosalynn Carter’s best friend was Jimmy Carter’s younger sister, Ruth. She fell in love with Jimmy Carter in 1944, as she gazed at a photo of him that Ruth Carter kept pinned to her bedroom wall.
“I thought he was the most handsome young man I had ever seen,” Rosalynn Carter wrote. “I had known him as long as I could remember, the way everyone in a small town knows everyone else, but he was three years older than I and had been away at school for four years.”
Now 99, the former president entered home hospice care in February after a series of brief hospital stays. On Wednesday, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient watched the memorial service for his late wife from his wheelchair.
Audio Postcard: Voices from Plains
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The Voices: Pastor Tony Lowden, Jeff Moss, Jennifer Olsen, Roger Teeple, Elias Moreles, Kaleb Green and Joanna Maddox (singing). Reporting by the AJC’s Martha Dalton
When her motorcade left the church for her burial at their home nearby, the earlier joyful mood among the spectators lining the streets gave way to a respectful, mournful silence. Lowden slowly walked in front of her hearse. Uniformed U.S. service members marched behind it, followed by the Carter family.
They walked near where Rosalynn Carter once played as a girl at night under the streetlights, where she climbed atop cotton bales that once lined the roads ahead of arriving freight trains, where she used to hang out at one of her favorite spots, the city’s train depot.
In her autobiography, the former first lady emphasized the importance of her hometown when she wrote about what it was like moving into the White House.
“And though we face extraordinary responsibilities and will live a life we never even dreamed of,” she wrote, “we are first and always Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter from Plains, Georgia.”
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC