Remembering Rosalynn Carter

The former U.S. and Georgia First Lady died at age 96 in Plains, just a few days after entering home hospice care

Remembering Rosalynn Carter
Rosalynn Carter in 1977

Photograph by FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Atlantans turned out en masse in November 1994 for the release of former U.S. and Georgia First Lady Rosalynn Carter’s book Helping Yourself Help Others: A Book For Caregivers at Oxford Books on Pharr Road. The line for the book-signing snaked completely through the store. On assignment to write a short scene piece for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Peach Buzz” column, I took note of the dark suited Secret Service agents assigned to Carter, ineffectually attempting to blend in with the Anne Rice books. I asked her assistant if Carter might have time for a question or two. The assistant disappeared into the back to confer with the author. She returned a moment later to say the First Lady would be happy to answer my questions if I agreed to escort her from the rear of the store to the signing table. I surveyed the distance and realized I had about 45 seconds of Mrs. Carter’s undivided attention. I readily agreed.

On our stroll together, with her lilting South Georgia accent, Rosalynn Carter discussed the encouraging reaction she was receiving as she talked to Americans on her book tour: “It’s been amazing to me as I travel around to find so many people in a care-giving situation. It’s a real issue for many, many of us,” she told me. Just as she did with her mental health advocacy work as First Lady, Carter was unafraid of utilizing her intelligence and her disarming Southern charm to coax Americans into having candid conversations on topics we typically tend to avoid.

Carter died on Sunday in Plains, Georgia, at age 96 after entering at-home hospice following a dementia diagnosis first disclosed to the public in May. Via a statement released by the Carter Center, former President Jimmy Carter, 99—who is also in hospice care at the couple’s home in Plains—said, “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As along as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

From 1971 to 1975, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter lived in the governor’s mansion in Atlanta while he served as the 76th governor of Georgia. From 1977 to 1981, the couple moved to Washington D.C. after he was elected the 39th President of the United States.

Rememebring Rosalynn Carter
The Carters attend the Democratic National Convention in 2004.

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The former First Lady is survived by her children—Jack, Chip, Jeff, and Amy—along with 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. “Besides being a loving mother and extraordinary First Lady, my mother was a great humanitarian in her own right,” Chip Carter said in a statement. “Her life of service and compassion was an example for all Americans. She will be sorely missed not only by our family but by the many people who have better mental health care and access to resources for caregiving today.”

On Sunday, tributes to Rosalynn Carter poured in from across the globe. In a statement, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said, “A proud native Georgian, Rosalynn Carter had an indelible impact on our state and our nation as a First Lady to both. Working alongside her husband, she championed mental health services and promoted the state she loved across the globe.”

United States Senator Raphael Warnock reflected, “Rosalynn embodied the principles of love, justice, and humility that resonate in our faith traditions. Her work was not about politics—it was about uplifting the vulnerable, showing mercy and embodying the belief that we are all connected.” Added U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff, “The state of Georgia and the United States are better places because of Rosalynn Carter. I join all Georgians and Americans in mourning her loss. May Rosalynn Carter’s memory be a blessing.”

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens posted, “More than 96 years ago, a First Lady was born years ahead of her time…Mrs. Carter never stopped advocating for mental health or the Equal Rights Amendment. She was an activist, author, and humanitarian. The city of Atlanta joins all of Georgia—and mourners around the world—as we honor the memory of the First Lady.”

On behalf of the King Center, Bernice King wrote that, “[Carter’s] commitment to peace and tireless efforts, alongside her husband, to make a positive impact on our nation and the world will be remembered.”

Remembering Rosalynn Carter
Rosalynn Carter in 1970

Photograph by by MPI/Getty Images

Rosalynn Carter is credited with creating the trailblazing model for modern First Ladies, sitting in on her husband’s cabinet meetings and being a full-fledged political partner and sounding board to the president. But she downplayed her talents and influence in a September 1976 presidential campaign appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press while discussing her role model, the sometimes controversial Eleanor Roosevelt.

“I don’t think I could ever compare myself to Eleanor Roosevelt,” said Carter. “But there are so many things I see that need to be done. I don’t think I’ve ever shied away from controversy, and I don’t think Jimmy has ever shied away from controversy. Jimmy has always told me if you do anything, you’re going to be criticized. The only way not to be criticized is to just be mediocre and never do anything.” After outlining her plans to bring attention to mental health and care for the elderly, Carter added, “When Jimmy was governor, I learned I could do anything, I could help with any program because you’re in a position of influence. You’re in a position to help.”

In Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life, the only book co-written by the couple, Rosalynn Carter reflected on the anger she felt about their interrupted work together on behalf of the country in the aftermath of Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election loss to Ronald Reagan.

Back in Plains in January 1981 in a cramped house filled with boxes of White House mementos, Rosalynn Carter detailed how she worked through her anger. Together, the First Couple installed a tongue-and-groove floor in the attic to store their memories. “It was hot and stuffy, but we didn’t want anyone to help us,” she wrote. “The hard work was good physical and mental therapy. After years of involvement in important events and decisions, which meant separations, we again had time for true companionship. We shared memories about our times in the White House, some hilarious and some sad. We walked in the woods, jogged, rode bicycles on the rural roads around Plains, fished in our own pond and went to bed at night physically exhausted.”

The couple would soon transition from building out the attic to building the Carter Center and the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta to host their global initiatives to better the world.

In the post-presidency, with dueling word processors in their home offices, Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter also both became best-selling authors. And the First Lady kept careful track of their book sales. As she recalled in Everything to Gain, “My book [the 1984 autobiography First Lady From Plains] was number one on the New York Times best-seller list, but Jimmy always had Jane Fonda’s exercise book and Megatrends ahead of his. Mine was on the list for 18 weeks, his was on for 13! He takes my ribbing good-naturedly, however.”

When I told the First Lady that their dialogue in Everything to Gain made it a favorite of mine and asked if they planned a follow-up together, Mrs. Carter didn’t hesitate in her reply: “Heavens, no, because I would like to stay married to Jimmy.”

Remembering Rosalynn Carter
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter attend an Atlanta Falcons game in 2018.

Photograph by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

On the secrets to their ultimately 77-year marriage, the longest of any U.S. President and First Lady, Rosalynn Carter was direct. “We have been with a number of married couples who look adoringly at each other and make such comments as ‘We’ve been together for 38 years and never had a cross word,’” she reflected in Everything to Gain. “Either they are stretching the truth or they are completely different from us.”

As a former Navy man, the president conceded in Everything to Gain that his wife’s uneven dedication to punctuality would sometimes result in a fight. But even an always-punctual husband sometimes forgets his wife’s birthday. Once realizing he didn’t have a gift on her August 18 birthday, the president hurriedly wrote her a note: “Happy Birthday! As proof of my love, I will never again make an unpleasant comment about tardiness.” Reflecting on the gesture in Everything to Gain, Jimmy Carter recalled, “I signed it and delivered it in an envelope, with a kiss. It has turned out to be one of the nicest birthday presents in our family’s history—for Rosalynn and for me!”

On the best-seller’s list, the President did manage to best his better half with Always a Reckoning, a 1995 foray into poetry. With a poem simply titled “Rosalynn,” the president artfully captured his love for her and the essence of their 77-year marriage:

“She’d smile, and the birds would feel that they no longer had to sing, or it may be I failed to hear their song.

Within a crowd, I’d hope her glance might be for me, but knew that she was shy, and wished to be alone.

I’d pay to sit behind her, blind to what was on the screen, and watch the image flicker upon her hair.

I’d glow when her diminished voice would clear my muddled thoughts, like lightning flashing in a gloomy sky.

The nothing in my soul with her aloof was changed to foolish fullness when she came to be with me.

With shyness gone and hair caressed with gray, her smile still makes the birds forget to sing and me to hear their song.”

Remembering Rosalynn Carter
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter hug after receiving the final news of Jimmy’s victory in the presidential election on November 2, 1976.

Photograph by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

• • •

Nationally televised ceremonies celebrating the life of Rosalynn Carter will begin on Monday, November 27 as a motorcade, accompanied by past and present members of her Secret Service detail, will travel from Sumter County, Georgia, to Atlanta’s Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, where the First Lady will lie in repose. The Carter family has invited the public to pay their respects at this time. On Tuesday, November 28, a private tribute service will be held at Glenn Memorial Church at Emory University. The invitation-only funeral will be held at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains on Wednesday, November 29. For more details on the memorials and how you can pay tribute to Rosalynn Carter, visit the Carter Center’s website.