On the eve of his 95th birthday, former president Jimmy Carter sits down with AJC reporter Ernie Suggs to talk about his life, his legacy, his marriage, and his future.- Ernie Suggs (Tyson.horne@ajc.com)

Still active, Jimmy Carter turns 95 on Tuesday

Former president keeps his eyes on the world while relaxing in Plains

Jimmy Carter sat in his Plains home this week, tired but thankful.

Five months after breaking his hip, he had just finished up a tough session with his physical therapist. “She pushes me almost to the limit every time I have physical therapy, which is twice a week,” Carter said. “… I encourage her to give me all I can take.”

Those words would hardly come as a surprise to the people who know the 39th president best. Carter is as determined in his physical therapy as he has been in his fight for human rights, friends say. Tuesday, he’ll turn 95, but there’s still plenty on his plate.

Two generations removed from the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty that he helped to broker and his landmark work to normalize relations with China, the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize recipient slows down only when forced to.

Next week, he will spend six days building affordable housing in Nashville for Habitat for Humanity.

Former President Jimmy Carter poses for a portrait.
Photo: Rick Diamond / The Carter Center

PHOTO GALLERY: Jimmy Carter through the years

“I have been blessed with good health, and I have been blessed with adequate vigor and a good mind,” Carter said. “I would say that, except for my physical limitations, I don’t see any real differences in my older years than I did earlier.”

Not that there haven’t been scares.

Four years ago, he faced life-threatening cancer. When doctors found four small melanoma lesions in his brain, Carter said, he was “surprisingly at ease” with the diagnosis.

“I thought I only had two or three weeks to live. But I got a remarkable new treatment from Emory University Hospital, and I was one of the 40 percent of the people who responded to that treatment,” Carter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In 2016, Carter and his doctors reported that his cancer had vanished.

Walter Mondale, Carter’s vice president, turned 91 this year. His former running mate continues to inspire him. “I am always amazed at how well he keeps up with things and how strong he is,” said Mondale.

Walter Mondale (right) listens while his running mate, Jimmy Carter, talks to reporters during their campaign for the 1976 presidential election. (Photo by Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty Images)
Photo: Owen Franken/Corbis via Getty Images

Carter said that, since his hip surgery in May, he has “limited endurance.” Right now, he walks with a cane, but has returned to teaching       Sunday School at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains and spent a week in July in Virginia for the       Carter Center’s annual retreat.

“I am grateful. I have had a chance to get back to work at the Carter Center in a reduced way,” Carter said. “In the meantime, I have been enjoying my farm and teaching Sunday School in church, being with my family pretty regularly.”

He has all but stopped his foreign travel on behalf of the center, to places like Asia and Africa. And he’s spending fewer days in Atlanta, though he was here last week to deliver a series of lectures at his namesake institution and Emory University.

He sat on stage at the Carter Center on Sept. 17 with his 92-year-old wife Rosalynn, while his oldest grandson, Jason Carter, who is chairman of the organization’s board, watched from the front row.

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Former President Jimmy Carter with talk-show host David Letterman at an Indiana Habitat for Humanity build in 2018. 
Photo: Jason Asteros/Habitat for Humanity

When he addressed the crowd, as he does each year at the opening of the Carter Conversation series, he presented a list of issues that he wants the Carter Center to focus on — ending wars, addressing global warming, securing human rights and constructively criticizing the United States.

He also said it could be the      last time his remarks kick off the lecture series .    

Jason “is quite prepared, whenever we want to step back, to take over the responsibilities,” Carter said. “We haven’t worked out any specific details yet. But he and I have discussed it. We will phase out, I guess. I haven’t decided yet exactly what I am gonna do this time next year when the obligation rolls around again.”

Former President Jimmy Carter, left, and his grandson, Jason Carter, react to a joke from the pulpit Oct. 12, 2014 at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Albany, Ga. Jason Carter is now the chairman of the Carter Center’s Board of Trustees. “I don’t have any doubt that Jason can take over when I am gone and do an adequate job,” Carter said.  (AP Photo/Phil Sears)
Photo: Phil Sears

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The former president and his wife started the Carter Center in 1982 and built it into a global powerhouse that has worked to eradicate disease and ensure fair foreign elections.

Jason Carter said his grandparents have already “pulled back a lot” on their Carter Center obligations.

“They are going to be a part of the transition, and that is great. But the decision-making has moved to the board and the CEO, who has a great capacity to build,” he said.

As for his grandfather, “He has been excited to watch this, and it is nice to be able to call him for advice,” Jason Carter said. “The strategic direction of the Carter Center will always be based on his principles and values forever. We are growing into our adolescence, and that is a healthy place for the organization to be in.”

Meanwhile, Jimmy Carter seems optimistic about the future. He mentioned that he had been following Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist. This week, Thunberg delivered a sharp rebuke of leaders at the United Nations, including President Trump, who refuse to see climate change as a global crisis.

Thunberg and young activists “are tackling the right project and going about it very effectively,” Carter said. “It was exciting to me and inspirational. The project in which they are working is worthwhile for all adults to adopt. I am sorry that Republicans have not adopted global warming as one of their challenges.”

When he’s not addressing world problems, Carter still enjoys fishing in the family’s pond. The Carters, who have been married for 73 years, exercise together and read the Bible together before going to bed, after Rosalynn has cooked dinner.

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter pose for a portrait during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto in  2007. “She plays a great role. We have a good, harmonious relationship. Still kind of demanding. We encourage each other to take a chance and attempt bold things on occasion. She stimulates in many ways and still helps me.” (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP

His advice for those seeking longevity? “The first thing is to marry the right woman if you are a man. Marry the right man if you are a woman. Find something very challenging or interesting to do,” Carter said. “We have had the Carter Center, with a very bold and aggressive and challenging program to keep us occupied. So having a very formidable and challenging and exciting task to perform is one of the best ways to live a longer life.”

Their son, 69-year-old Chip Carter, visits often. One day, he will take over the family farm.

But, he said, his parents are “as mentally sharp as they have ever been.”

Former President Jimmy Carter prays during Sunday School class at Maranatha Baptist Church in his hometown in 2015. “I have been blessed with good health, and I have been blessed with adequate vigor and a good mind,” Carter said. (AP Photo/Branden Camp)
Photo: HANDOUT/AP

Preparing the gear for an early morning fishing trip, Chip Carter says he feels lucky to have both parents around and to see his father mark another milestone birthday.

The former president has nothing spectacular planned.

“My goal is to stay home with my wife and have a few local birthday parties around Plains,” Carter said. “Nothing extraordinary or grandiose.”

How you can celebrate President Carter’s 95th birthday on Oct. 1 at the  Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum

In honor of the president’s 95th birthday, the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum will lower its admission price to .95 cents Tuesday, and the hours will be extended from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m.

“We are looking forward to when he is 100 so we can charge a dollar,” said Tony Clark, the library’s public affairs director.

Visitors will get a chance to see “Georgia on my Screen.”

The exhibit showcases movies and television shows made in Georgia due, “in large measure, to Gov. Jimmy Carter's decision to establish the Georgia Film Commission to encourage film production in the state.” 

Also, the Tufton Tet musical group will perform a free birthday concert at 11 a.m. in the lobby of the library, where there will be cake and other surprises. At 6:30 p.m., there will be a free screening of “Smokey and the Bandit.”

But at 6 p.m., just before the screening, the library will host a “Smokey and the Bandit” costume contest.

The Jimmy Carter Library & Museum is located at 441 Freedom Parkway, Atlanta.

Listen to President Carter’s full conversation with The AJC’s Ernie Suggs. 

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