Following cancer treatment, Jimmy Carter in Memphis building houses

Memphis — He’d completed his four treatments for brain cancer, just like his doctors had originally mapped it out. And it was still hours before he had to be in Nashville to present a big award to country music star Trisha Yearwood.

So when former President Jimmy Carter found himself with some unanticipated free time Monday morning, he pretty much did what any ailing 91-year-old would do: He went out and built a house.

"As long as I feel good and I'm able, I want to continue like I always have," said Carter, who arrived around 7:30 a.m. with his wife, Rosalynn, 88, to join more than two dozen other volunteers on a one-day build of a Habitat for Humanity house in this city's Uptown neighborhood. "Maybe slacking off a little bit …"

Or maybe not. The former first couple had expected to be in Nepal all this week, where Habitat’s 32nd annual Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project was slated to build some 100 houses in an especially earthquake-ravaged region of the remote moutain country. But continuing civil unrest following the adoption of a new constitution there — “a new constitution that really cheated the poor people of Nepal,” Carter emphasized at a midmorning press conference that was packed with Memphis business leaders, community figures and one congressman — threatened access to building supplies and volunteer safety so much that Habitat for Humanity International was forced to cancel the project entirely just over three weeks ago.

So, enter, in its place, the suddenly jump-started construction of 25-year-old Arlicia Gilliams’s future home at the corner of Looney Avenue and Woodlawn Streets. The very same one where Yearwood’s husband, fellow country superstar Garth Brooks, hung from a ladder on Monday to pound in wallboards and the former president of the United States toted his own tools around in a worn canvas bag and at one point expertly manned a power saw while even the Secret Service watched from a safe distance.

“It was a mutual decision,” Habitat for Humanity International CEO Jonathan Reckford chuckled when asked by the AJC if the famously industrious Carter had rung him up as soon as the Nepal trip was cancelled and requested to go somewhere else and put his carpentry skills to use. “We all still wanted to bring attention to the work and to the need for affordable housing and it was a great way to introduce next year’s project.”

Indeed, the 33rd annual Carter work project is already scheduled to take place in Memphis next August. Habitat’s most famous volunteer told the press conference he planned on being there, “if I am able and God’s willing.”

His own will’s pretty strong. After all, he’d managed to convince his doctors at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute to postpone his final scheduled treatment long enough for him to head overseas with Habitat; in response to a question from the AJC on Monday, Carter said that as a result of the project’s cancellation, things were back on track medically-speaking.

“They were going to delay the fourth treatment to give me a chance to come back from Nepal,” Carter said. “But they went ahead and gave it to me at the end of (the usual) three weeks.”

(At the extraordinary press conference in August where he discussed his cancer diagnosis, Carter said he was scheduled to receive four drug treatments along with radiation therapy. On Monday afternoon, a spokeswoman for the Carter Center said that the former president had completed the four and that “future treatments are to be determined.”)

In a conversation with a trio of journalists just after he’d tucked into a barbecue lunch with apparent gusto, Carter elaborated some more on his current physical and emotional state. He’s felt no real aftereffects from treatment, he said, other than, “I guess I’m a little bit weak for a day or two. So I cut back a bit, take a nap after lunch.”

He hasn’t changed his diet since becoming ill, and he and Rosalynn still keep up an active routine of bike-riding, hiking in the woods and swimming in the covered pool located on their property in Plains. He said he’s lost about five pounds, explaining, “I don’t eat as much as I was, but I definitely eat as much as I want.”

And he appears to be just as busy as ever — despite his vow to cut back significantly on his workload. The build, where Carter walked over and kissed his diligently-hammering wife, wrapped up just before 2 p.m. After that, the former president unbuckled his 20-year-old tool belt to prepare to head off to present Yearwood with the Voice of Music award at Monday night’s ASCAP Country Music Awards in Nashville. She and Brooks have taken part in the annual Carter Work Projects since 2007, and the couple had signed on to be in Nepal this week. When a call came in a few weeks ago asking if they could come to Memphis for the day instead, Yearwood didn’t even think about begging off on account of her own big night.

“I’ll do anything for him,” Yearwood, a Georgia native, said about Carter.

As for her husband, well …

“When we landed and I found it was just one house today, I said ‘Oh no,’” joked Brooks, a veteran of those annual builds of 100 or more houses. “You don’t want to work on a house that Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are working on, because they will work you to the bone!”