Residents of Plains, Ga., posted hundreds of campaign-like signs in support of their most famous citizen.
Photo: BEN GRAY / AJC
Photo: BEN GRAY / AJC

Signs of hope greet Jimmy Carter at home in Plains

PLAINS — It was, in the words of one organizer, a “non-partisan, unopposed campaign.”

Barely two hours after former president Jimmy Carter discussed his cancer diagnosis in a press conference broadcast live around the world Thursday, the residents of his hometown decided to have their say.

Just past lunchtime, about a dozen people gathered in the driveway of a home near Main Street and prepared to fan out around Plains with 500 yard signs like those normally planted by politicians begging for votes. These “campaign” signs, though, were meant to appeal to one constituent with their poignant and powerful message:

“JIMMY CARTER FOR CANCER SURVIVOR.”

The goal was to get all the signs up by the time Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, arrived home in Plains late in the afternoon. With Carter having disclosed he’d be undergoing radiation therapy after his morning press conference in Atlanta, folks here were hoping he’d get a boost from seeing their visible signs of support.

“If we can put a smile on his face, it’s worth it,” said Jill Stuckey, a close friend of the former first couple and a board member of the Friends of Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, which organized the sign effort.

The idea for the top-secret campaign was hatched last week, almost as soon Carter disclosed he had cancer. Though little was known beyond what was in the three-sentence statement sent out by The Carter Center, it was enough to get Mike Luckovich to work. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist whipped up a cartoon in which a couple was seen pounding in a lawn sign that bore the slogan, “Jimmy Carter for Cancer Survivor.”

The cartoon quickly made its way around social media and found its way to Plains. It set Stuckey and others to thinking. And then to scheming: Could they get signs made up quickly enough to surprise the Carters on their first trip home after he started treatment? And could they get enough volunteers to paper this town of about 700 residents in just a couple of hours (any earlier and the surprise might be spoiled)?

Could they ever.

The mayor’s wife showed up with her grandson to stick signs in lawns and on roadsides in the steamy southwest Georgia heat. So did Kim Fuller, the president’s niece and “Friends” head, who, at one point rode her bicycle around to check out sign distribution. Even Freddie Powell Sims, a Democratic state senator from Albany and self-described “experienced” campaign sign planter, pulled on her cowboy boots and got to work.

“I am President Carter’s state senator, which is so awesome and so humbling,” said Sims, who joked she wouldn’t need to hit the gym Thursday after riding in the back of a truck and hopping out periodically to place signs from City Hall to the Plains Welcome Center. “I’ve done this a lot, but never for such a worthwhile reason as this one.”

A few people expressed doubts early on about the signs, the bottom half of which were purposely done up in Carter’s presidential campaign signature green.

“I said I thought Jimmy would want it to be low-key (upon his return),” said, Nelle Ariail, a friend close of the former first couple since 1982, when her late husband, Dan, became their pastor. “But when Jill told me Rosalynn liked it, I said OK!”

That’s right. Before pulling the trigger on the town-wide effort, Stuckey checked with Carter’s wife of 69 years. The “boss” gave the idea an enthusiastic thumbs up. And so by 3 p.m. on Thursday, all that remained was a little fine tuning (someone was going to run another sign out to the iconic giant grinning peanut on Georgia Highway 45), and then sit back and wait.

Just before 4:30, Carter’s three-car motorcade approached his modest “compound” not far from downtown. Did it pause ever so slightly so its famous occupant could gawk at the many signs stuck on either side of the road as far as the eye could see?

Hard to say. But less than an hour later, an email arrived in Stuckey’s inbox.

“Jill, We were overwhelmed by the posters! There must be hundreds of them,” Rosalynn Carter had written. “It was a great homecoming!

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