Rosalynn Carter, who transformed the role of first lady, dies at 96

By | November 21, 2023


Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, devoted wife of the nation’s 39th president and tireless advocate for mental health care, has died.

The Carter Center confirmed that she died Sunday morning at her home in Plains, Georgia, at the age of 96.

The former first lady and former President Jimmy Carter were married for 77 years. She and the former president had four children, 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

“Rosalynn has been my full partner in everything I have accomplished,” Jimmy Carter said in a Carter Center statement. “She gave me great advice and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in this world, I always knew someone loved and supported me.

Throughout her husband Jimmy Carter’s political career, Rosalynn Carter was his staunchest supporter. She campaigned aggressively for him, energizing his supporters, and once admitted to being more adamant about winning than he was.

After her husband was elected president in 1976, Carter turned the role of first lady into a full-time job.

She was the first presidential wife to open an office in the East Wing and hire a full staff. Many remember Rosalynn Carter carrying a briefcase full of papers to the office each day.

She was a trusted advisor to the president, a participant in foreign and domestic affairs, and often held weekly meetings with Jimmy Carter in the Oval Office, Kate Anderson Brower, author of “First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies” .,” told USA TODAY in 2018.

Carter has traveled the world, promoting her own platform aimed at improving mental health care and her husband’s stance on human rights. She pushed for the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have granted legal equality of the sexes to women and men.

Former colleagues, friends and observers described her as genuine, warm and selfless. For much of her life, she embodied the modern working mother and wife.

Brower said Carter cared more about helping people than materialistic things.

“I think she will be remembered as a strong, tough, disciplined woman who is also very kind and had a lot of empathy for others,” Brower said.

Carter, 96, entered hospice care on Friday after it was revealed she was diagnosed with dementia in May.

Jimmy Carter entered hospice care in February after a series of short hospital stays, and their grandson, Jason Carter, told USA TODAY in September that his grandparents were coming to their end.

“They’re together. They’re home. They’re in love and I don’t think anyone has more. I mean, it’s a perfect situation for this time in their lives,” Jason Carter said in September.

The Carters both grew up in the small town of Plains.

Rosalynn Carter was the oldest of four children who, after her father died when she was 13, had to care for her younger siblings and help with household chores while her mother went off to work.

The family struggled to make ends meet, but Carter completed high school and later attended Georgia Southwestern College.

In 1945, she began dating Jimmy Carter, who had returned from the United States Navy. In 1946, the couple married.

Jimmy Carter’s career in the Navy kept the family moving. Their three sons were all born in different naval ports in Virginia, Hawaii, and Connecticut. Their daughter was later born in Plains.

During her husband’s tenure as president, the former first lady was passionate about developing solutions to problems facing older adults and brought together groups for the White House Roundtable on Aging.

Kathy Cade, who served as director of special projects to the first lady, said Carter was inspired to pursue mental health reform after seeing a distant cousin suffer from mental illness when she was child.

When Jimmy Carter ran for governor of Georgia, Rosalynn Carter discovered how terrible state programs for people with mental illness were, leaving families struggling to find care.

In 1977, Carter became honorary chairman of the President’s Commission on Mental Health.

The position allowed Carter to continue her work to end the mental crisis she had unleashed as Georgia’s first lady.

She led efforts to pass the Mental Health Systems Act in 1980, which provided grants to community mental health centers.

Carter also pushed for children to be vaccinated against preventable diseases while her husband was governor and president of Georgia.

She partnered with Betty Bumpers, first lady of Arkansas from 1971 to 1975, to promote vaccination as a common health practice. In 1981, 95% of children entering school were vaccinated against measles and other diseases.

When the Carters left the White House, they returned to Plains and continued to make a difference.

In 1982, they founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit organization that strives to improve quality of life, alleviate suffering, and advance human rights through its programs.

Through the Carter Center, the former president and first lady traveled the world to fight Guinea worm disease, increase agricultural production in Africa and advocate for human rights.

Carter created the Carter Center Mental Health Program to continue to combat stigma and discrimination against people with mental illness.

She also established the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism to encourage in-depth reporting on mental health.

Outside of the Carter Center, Carter has served on a number of organizational boards over the years, including the Plains Better Hometown Program, the Plains Historic Preservation Trust, and the Gannett Board of Directors.

In 1984, Carter’s autobiography “First Lady from Plains” was published.

Matt Costello, historian for the White House Historical Association, said the Carters accomplished so much after their presidency that it seems to overshadow their time in the White House.

“They created this incredible legacy of promoting human rights,” Costello said. “Often, presidents and first ladies slowly fade into retirement (when they leave office).”

Older years

Rosalynn Carter remained active into her old age, traveling with her husband, attending church, managing The Carter Center in Atlanta and volunteer with Habitat for Humanity.

The Carters lived modestly in the one-story ranch in Plains that they built in the 1960s.

“I would never call them relaxed,” Brower said. “They are the most active people in their 90s that you will ever meet. »

Cade said Carter saw her role as first lady as an opportunity to make an impact on the world.

Carter and Cade have remained friends and colleagues over the years and Cade currently serves as vice president of the Carter Center. Cade also co-authored Carter’s book “Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis.”

“He’s someone who has tremendous compassion for people who are suffering,” Cade said. “And she’s not the type to feel that kind of compassion. She’s always motivated to act.”

The Carters became champions of Habitat for Humanity in the 1980s.

In 1984, they were credited with starting the annual Jimmy Carter Work Project, which is now the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project.

The week-long homebuilding effort began in Manhattan, but over the years it has spread to other cities and countries. Today, some 1,200 volunteers join the Carters each year for the project, said Jonathan Reckford, international CEO of Habitat for Humanity.

Reckford, who joined Habitat for Humanity in 2005, described Rosalynn Carter as an extraordinary leader and hard worker who dedicated her life to helping others.

Reckford said Carter enjoys getting to know the families who have benefited from Habitat for Humanity projects. The Carters often hand out autographed Bibles to families, Reckford said.

“I think his legacy will be felt in many ways,” Reckford said. “She brings such compassion as well as a burning desire to fight to make things better.”

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