Former first lady Rosalynn Carter dead at 96

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter. (Credit: The Carter Center)

ATLANTA — Rosalynn Carter, a small-town girl from Plains, Georgia who married a peanut farmer and went on to become first lady of Georgia and first lady of the United States, as well as an advocate for mental health reform, has died.

She was 96.

>> Watch: Rosalynn Carter tribute service

Her death on Sunday came less than 48 hours after she joined her husband of 77 years, former U.S. President and former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, in hospice at their home in Plains.

Rosalynn Carter was an author and a lifelong advocate for mental health treatment and caregiving, focusing on reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness. 

At  a time when the topic of mental health was often swept under the rug, Rosalynn Carter boldly brought it into the national conversation. She convened a White House Conference on Mental Health, which led to the passage of the Mental Health Systems Act in 1980. While Congress repealed most of the law during the Reagan administration, her efforts laid the foundation for a more compassionate and understanding approach to mental health in the United States.

“A proud native Georgian, she had an indelible impact on our state and nation as a first lady to both,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said in a tweet Sunday. “Working alongside her husband, she championed mental health services and promoted the state she loved across the globe. Their marriage, spanning 77 years, stands as a testament to their enduring partnership. Like that marriage, her achievements will stand the test of time and continue to be celebrated by those who knew her best.”

The soft-spoken Carter never took a back seat to her husband. Nor would he let her. He often reminded people she was the co-founder of The Carter Center, the internationally-renowned Atlanta-based nonprofit that works toward peace, conflict resolution and eradicating diseases.

In 1987, she founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers at Georgia Southwestern University, her alma mater, to support the needs of people who provide unpaid care for family and friends. The institute has since gained national prominence, and Rosalynn Carter is credited for prompting governments, businesses and nonprofits across the U.S. to address the needs and challenges of being a caregiver.  

In 2013, Georgia Southwestern created the Rosalynn Carter Health and Human Sciences Complex, adding clinical space for nursing and the university’s psychology department, and a display honoring her lifetime commitment to caregiving and advocating for mental health awareness.

Rosalynn Carter (second from left), daughter Amy Carter (fourth from left) and Jimmy Carter (Center) gather around a bronze statue of Mrs. Carter at the dedication of the second building in the Rosalynn Carter Health and Human Sciences Complex at Southwestern Georgia University on May 2, 2013.
Rosalynn Carter (second from left), daughter Amy Carter (fourth from left) and Jimmy Carter (Center) gather around a bronze statue of Mrs. Carter at the dedication of the second building in the Rosalynn Carter Health and Human Sciences Complex at Southwestern Georgia University on May 2, 2013. (Credit: Georgia Southwestern University)

Acting and speaking as one

Carter graduated from Georgia Southwestern College in the class of 1946 and Jimmy Carter attended there before transferring to Georgia Tech and later to the U.S. Naval Academy.

With the exception of his time in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Rosalynn Carter was never far from her husband’s side. She worked alongside him as he took a stand against racism as governor of Georgia, and as he led the nation as president through the recession in the late-1970s into the early-1980s. After the Carters left politics, they went on to build homes together for Habitat for Humanity, traveling the world on peace missions and spending  time in parts of Africa to eradicate diseases such as Guinea Worm and river blindness.

“If you knew them well, they literally moved and acted and spoke as one. She could read people and read the situation and that was invaluable in their relationship,” said Michele Dunn, who knew the Carters for over 20 years and spent time many weekends cooking for them.

Former President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter ride a tandem bike in 1980. (Credit: Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D-Dawson, whose southwest Georgia district includes Plains, agreed. 

Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, D- Dawson (Credit: Georgia Senate)

“She supported President Carter with her mind, body and spirit. I mean, she worked,” Sims, 72, told State Affairs. “She hammered he carried the wood to build houses [for Habitat for Humanity]. And she wasn’t a person that just took a photo op with her husband, or with the organization, but she was there on site for most of the build time. Not just a few hours. That was not her way. Not at all. She was a very active supporter and doer.”

Rosalynn Carter had rare qualities that suited her for the role of first lady, Sims said.

“Rosalynn was an equalizer, who had this combination of Southern charm and intellect that is such a rarity,” she added. “And just talking to her and being in her presence, her movement; just such a gentle lady, very classy, but so smart, so dedicated to the welfare of others. It’s just all of those things that you would find and you would want in a first lady of this state, of these United States, and all of the characteristics that you would want in a mother, or even a grandmother …”

Dunn recalled the time Jimmy Carter was being interviewed by a biographer for a book. Rosalynn Carter sat in on the interview and interjected often, correcting her husband’s recollection of events. At one point, he stopped, looked over at her and said, “Rosalynn, are you telling this story or am I?: Without batting an eye, she quipped: “You can, if you tell it correctly.” 

“He knew she was right. It was so funny,” Dunn said, laughing. “He didn’t say another word to her about it. He turned and went on with the story. He didn’t argue. That was their relationship. She was as much a part of his life as he was.”

Dunn said Rosalynn Carter had a knack for reading a room and figuring out who people were. And for that reason, Jimmy Carter came to trust and rely on her judgment, Dunn said.

“… I honestly think he never made a decision without her,” Dunn said. “I know them so well, that if she had been against something, I can never imagine that he would have gone against her better judgment because her better judgment was his judgment. Literally to me, they were one soul in two bodies.

“They could shut the world out, and did. I’ve watched him do it at dinner. They would have a private word with each other or there would be a glance and it was like there was nobody else in the room. They knew exactly what the other one meant by that.”

While Dunn said she cooked for the Carters most weekends for years, the couple would never let anyone serve them, preferring instead to serve themselves during the buffet-style meals. Dunn remembers one time when the former first lady ducked into the kitchen after one of the weekend meals and insisted that she wash the dishes. Rosalynn Carter was summarily dismissed from kitchen duty. Dunn says Carter loved Italian cuisine, especially her manicotti and once requested icebox pie, which Dunn made using fresh peaches.

Michele Dunn and the Carters and the peach icebox pie. (Credit: Michele Dunn)

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in Plains, Georgia on Aug. 18, 1927 to Allethea “Allie” and Wilburn Edgar Smith. She was delivered by Lillian Carter, a trained nurse  and Jimmy Carter’s late mother. Her future husband got a glimpse of Eleanor Rosalynn Smith a few days after her birth when the toddler Jimmy accompanied his mother to check on the newborn.

The former first lady was thrust into responsibilities at an early age. Her father died when she was 13 years old, and as the oldest child, she helped her mother manage the household and raise her three siblings. In 1944, Rosalynn Carter graduated from Plains High School as the valedictorian. Two years later, she graduated from Georgia Southwestern College. 

Carter literally married the boy next door who went on to become a Naval nuclear engineer, governor of Georgia and the nation’s 39th president. She and Jimmy Carter married on July 7, 1946. They are the longest-married presidential couple in U.S. history.

Their partnership in public service intertwined with their love story extended well into their nineties. Over the last decade, the Carters worked on bringing a medical clinic to Plains, fundraising for the local Boys & Girls Club, and helping low-income residents in Sumter County repair and gain title to their homes. 

“And this is the kind of work ethic that you find in rural Georgia,” said Sims. “Because your resources are scarce. … Everybody takes care of everybody. And that’s what they did.”

Jill Stuckey, superintendent of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park, and a longtime family friend, got to know the Carters when she worked for the state environmental agency.  As of late, she has tended to some of the Carter’s creature comforts, stoking their fireplace and sharing the last of the sugar cane syrup squeezed on the family farm in nearby Archery, as the Carters took in the news on MSNBC. 

“Mrs. Carter was the epitome of grace and humbleness,” she said. “She was quiet and reserved but a force to be reckoned with when needed. I will forever cherish our friendship.”

(Design: Joy Walstrum)

Praises pour in

As news of Rosalynn Carter’s passing spread Sunday, tributes poured in from across the political spectrum and around the world.

Among the first came from her husband of 77 years. In a statement to the Carter Center, President Carter said, “Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

In addition to the former president, she is survived by her children — Jack, Chip, Jeff, and Amy — and 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. A grandson died in 2015.

“Besides being a loving mother and extraordinary First Lady, my mother was a great humanitarian in her own right,” said Chip Carter. “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.”

Former President Barack Obama tweeted, “Rosalynn Carter was a true champion for mental health and a shining example of grace and compassion. Her legacy will continue to inspire us all.”

Former first lady Michelle Obama echoed her husband’s sentiments, saying, “Rosalynn Carter’s dedication to service and her tireless advocacy for the most vulnerable among us will forever be remembered. She was a trailblazer and a role model for us all.”

Georgia Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff also extended their condolences Sunday.

“As a champion for all Georgians, Rosalynn’s impact on our state was immeasurable,” Warnock tweeted Sunday. “She embodied the principles of love, justice, and humility that resonate in our faith traditions.  Moreover, her commitment to destigmatizing mental health care, strengthening human rights and improving global health was an extension of her faith and a testament to her caring spirit.  Her work was not about politics — it was about uplifting the vulnerable, showing mercy, and embodying her belief that we are all connected.”

“A former first lady of Georgia and the United States, Rosalynn’s lifetime of work and her dedication for public service changed the lives of many,” Ossoff said in a statement. “Among her many accomplishments, Rosalynn Carter will be remembered for her compassionate nature and her passion for women’s rights, human rights, and mental health reform. Georgia and the United States are better places because of Rosalynn Carter.”

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Senior reporter Jill Jordan Sieder contributed to this report. 

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