My family has been in plains since 1833—in fact, a few years before Jimmy’s family came to town.
[I grew up in] Depression times, and people didn’t have much. We were poor, but we didn’t know it. We had a garden with our vegetables; Mother made all our clothes. She taught me to sew, and I helped her. Nobody had air-conditioning, heated houses—we had open fireplaces and wood-burning stoves. We children played out under the streetlights at night, rode our bicycles around. I played with boys because there were no girls on my street my age.
Photograph courtesy of AP Photo/Jason Bronis
I used to slip off and go across the street to see this little boy. My father didn’t like that. I knew that it was because I could have gotten run over.
Our social life centered around church and school. We had church parties, pound parties; we would take a pound of something, like a pound cake, a pound of cookies, and we would play games. I had a teacher that was extraordinary, Miss Julia Coleman. She was my eighth-grade homeroom teacher. She had ten or twelve paintings—I remember "The Blue Boy"—by famous artists she wanted us to learn. She would bring records, big round ones, that she would play to get us to learn some classical music.
Growing up was very pleasant and happy until my father died, when I was thirteen. This was before penicillin, and miracle drugs, we’d call them. And if somebody got sick, I mean really sick, you’d wait until the crisis, and they either got well or they died. And everybody in town was concerned, and there’d be cars parked around the house, and everybody would be taking in food. They did that for my father. He died with leukemia, but when he was sick, everybody brought food—we didn’t have to cook.
I was really upset. He played with us, he did tricks for us: I remember he could walk on his hands, and turned flips in the front yard. He expected us to mind him. When I’d go across the street and he’d fuss at me, I thought he didn’t love me. Then when he got sick, I felt it was my fault. If I had been better . . . My father expected me to do good. He was really excited when I would come home with a good report card. And he made an impression on me after he died. I remember him talking about this one woman who smoked; she was the only woman in town we ever saw with a cigarette in her mouth. And she would drive down the street with a cigarette, and my daddy would talk about how awful that looked. So if I ever had a chance to smoke or something, I would think, My daddy wouldn’t like it.
I was the oldest, and one of my jobs was to help take care of the two [next oldest] boys. I was nine when my little sister was born, and I was old enough to help with her. And then my daddy died when she was four, and so my mother depended on me. So I kind of had to grow up.
When the war started, we had rationing for shoes and sugar and gasoline. Every morning, we had chapel in school, and they’d call out the names of any new ones that had gone [to serve] and had prayers for everybody.
We had a kind of a party for our junior-senior prom, but it wasn’t big—no long gowns or anything; it was just not the thing to do when our country was at war. We went out to Jimmy’s parents’ pond house. His sister was one of my best friends. There were hardly any girls in Plains. Plains had about 600 people then—it has about 634 now, I think. Jimmy’s three years older. We only had eleven grades when we were going to school, and there’s a lot of difference in a sixteen-year-old senior in high school and a thirteen-year-old. So he was just not a part of my life.
Back then women could be schoolteachers or librarians or secretaries. There just was not much choice. But I thought I would be an architect; I drew buildings, and airplanes were really exciting. You very seldom ever saw an airplane back then, and when you did, it was just a little one. We had a schoolteacher whose boyfriend was a pilot, and he would fly over our schoolhouse and the whole school would go out to look. He would drop her messages with a little handkerchief parachute.
The schoolhouse that we went to is now the headquarters of the National Park Service. We have a lot of tourists. A lot of the events are scheduled when we’re there. At [Jimmy’s] boyhood home, they grow sugarcane and cotton and peanuts, so the tourists can see them.
The people of Plains have accepted us just like we had never gone to Washington. We were just people when we would go home, which was so refreshing. It’s still just a great place to live.
—As told to Amanda Heckert
Rosalynn Smith Carter was the first lady of the United States during her husband Jimmy’s term, from 1977 to 1981. She was valedictorian of Plains High School and attended Georgia Southwestern College. She writes more of her time growing up in First Lady from Plains, one of five books she has authored. She cofounded the nonprofit Carter Center in 1982, advocating especially for mental health research. She and President Carter still reside in Plains, where she is a deacon at Maranatha Baptist Church.