Published September 27, 1983

Ruth Carter Stapleton, the 54-year-old evangelist sister of former President Jimmy Carter, died Monday at her home in Fayetteville, N.C., after a five-month battle against cancer of the pancreas.

A graveside service will be 2 p.m. Wednesday at Lafayette Memorial Park in Fayetteville.

Mrs. Stapleton became a national celebrity by virtue of her brother's political success and realized her dream of establishing a religious retreat, called Holovita, near Dallas, to promote her philosophy of "inner healing."

She became the author of four books and a syndicated newspaper column, lectured regularly on her religious beliefs and toured the Middle East at her brother's request to help sell the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt.

But her home life in a suburb of the eastern North Carolina town of Fayetteville was far removed from the national spotlight.

In the late 1970s, she lived with her family in a neat but modest ranch-style brick house, tucked away on a quiet residential street. The national press trooped to her front door in 1977 when Carter attended her son’s wedding.

Reporters flocking to the Stapleton home the night before the wedding found no Secret Service agents, no political stars, only Mrs. Stapleton trying on a mink coat that her husband had picked out for her Christmas gift.

Mrs. Stapleton graciously welcomed a reporter and photographer who knocked on her door at 11 p.m. and offered them coffee and an interview.

She said she was more concerned about her son’s wedding than her brother’s highly publicized visit, and she was worried that her neighbors were upset by the sudden increase in traffic down the quiet street.

Ruth Carter Stapleton, sister of Jimmy Carter, speaks to the press on March 8, 1978. (AJC archive at GSU Library / AJCP521-012c)

Credit: Bud Skinner

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Credit: Bud Skinner

Indeed, Mrs. Stapleton grew weary of the constant attention she received during the Carter presidency, complaining in 1980 of being labeled a faith healer and pop psychologist. “It was so great when no one knew who I was. I could help people in high places. Now, if people are seen with me, the press thinks something is wrong with them.”

One prominent figure who reflected that concern was Larry Flynt, publisher of the magazine, “Hustler,” who credited Mrs. Stapleton with his religious conversion.

When he and Mrs. Stapleton were spotted by journalists visiting Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, Flynt complained, “We were hoping to be able to keep a relatively low profile, but I guess the world’s best-known pornographer and the president’s sister can’t be together and maintain a low profile.”

After Flynt was shot and wounded during a recess in his pornography trial in Lawrenceville, Ga., Mrs. Stapleton visited his bedside at the hospital there, calling him “a good friend.”

Upon learning of her death, Flynt described Mrs. Stapleton as “the only Christlike person I have ever met or known in my life.”

“She is the only person who stood by me through my trials and tribulations in life and the only person who only loved and never found it necessary to condemn me for what I did,” Flynt said.

Gloria Carter, 10, Jimmy, 12, and Ruth, 6 in 1937. (Chicago Sun-Times)

Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

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Credit: Chicago Sun-Times

Despite the pressures of the fishbowl existence, the Carter clan remained close. Just last July, the former president and brother Billy visited Mrs. Stapleton in Fayetteville, where they discussed her illness. The former president reportedly took a long walk with her and embraced her when they returned.

Mrs. Stapleton often took issue with the press depiction of her brother, Billy, the self-professed “redneck.” In one of her books, “Brother Billy,” she wrote of Billy the family man, and once told former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that Billy’s philosophy was simple: “Find happiness in the moment.”

Mrs. Stapleton was among family members who convinced Billy Carter to undergo treatment for his alcoholism after a series of embarrassing incidents put him in the nation’s headlines.

Mrs. Stapleton had declined conventional medical treatment for her cancer, which was detected at Duke University Medical Center, where her son, Scott, practices medicine. She said doctors could offer no assurances that radiation and chemotherapy would cure her cancer. She said she would depend instead on prayers for a miracle.

In late July, Mrs. Stapleton traveled to Freeport on Grand Bahama Island for experimental treatment at Dr. Lawrence Burton’s Immunology Researching Center. Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox also has undergone treatment at the center.

The therapy, which is not yet legal in the United States, involves injections of blood serum. She returned from the center in early September.

Married to a North Carolina veterinarian, Robert Stapleton, she had returned to college to study English and religion and earned a master’s degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina. She began her religious activities more than 20 years ago and was responsible for the establishment of halfway houses in Fayetteville for alcoholics and emotionally disturbed women.

A frequent lecturer, Mrs. Stapleton sold her Texas religious retreat last year, saying other commitments kept her from devoting enough time to it.

Surviving are her husband; two daughters, Mrs. Gloria Lynn Nimocks and Patricia Stapleton, both of Fayetteville; her other son, Robert Michael Stapleton of Fayetteville; her mother, Lillian Carter of Plains, Ga.; a sister, Mrs. Gloria Spann of Plains, Ga.; her two brothers; and four grandchildren.