The Gazette, Colorado Springs


never knew quite where Rosalynn stopped and Jimmy began.” The president quoted his wife frequently in discussions with advisers and bombarded her with memos on which he scribbled, “Ros, what think?” according to the 1988 book “Presidential Wives.” Within a few months of becoming the 39th president in 1977, Jimmy Carter sent his wife on a mission to Central and South America to promote human rights and democracy. Because she was not an elected official, the media sharply criticized the trip. When an American reporter in Ecuador asked if her diplomacy was “an appropriate exercise” of her position, she replied: “I am the person closest to the president of the United States, and if I can explain his policies and let the people know of his great interest and friendship, I intend to do so.” Such direct responses caused reporters to nickname the Georgia-born, soft-spoken and tenacious first lady “the Steel Magnolia.” She didn’t mind. “I am strong. I do have definite ideas and opinions. In the sense that ‘tough’ means I can take a lot, stand up to a lot, it’s a fair description,” she told Good Housekeeping magazine in 1976. Bitterly disappointed when her husband lost the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan, Carter thought “we’d go home and we’d be bored to death the rest of our lives,” she told the Times in 1998. Then she laughed. “But we haven’t had time.” They settled back into their modest ranch-style home in Plains and reinvented themselves as roving ambassadors who traveled the world, determined to help others one project at a time. Through the Atlanta-based Carter Center — a nonprofit think tank the two founded in 1982 — the couple had “an almost unlimited menu” of opportunities, the former president told the Times in 1999. They often went to Africa, where the center sponsored health care and agricultural projects in dozens of countries. They were the marquee hands-on volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, a network of volunteers that builds homes for people in need. She continued to work to raise awareness of mental health issues and in 1991 co-founded the immunization program Every Child By Two. “We seem to have an awful lot of things going on,” the former president told People in 2000. “But basically we work for peace and health.” In 1999, upon awarding the Carters the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the nation’s highest civilian honor — President Bill Clinton said the couple had “done more good things for more people than any other couple on the face of the Earth.” The Carters largely earned their living writing books — his, hers and, only once, theirs. Their collaboration on the appropriately named “Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life,” published in 1987, had been stormy. “We can’t do that” again, Jimmy Carter said in 1999. “Rosalynn is too strong-willed. And I am, too.” Widely considered one of the most activist first ladies since Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosalynn Carter arrived in the White House with her own platform — mental health reform. It was a cause she took up while helping her husband get elected governor of Georgia in 1970. She was a pioneer in destigmatizing mental illness, said Douglas Brinkley, author of the 1998 book “The Unfinished Presidency.” “By speaking openly, she helped millions cope with their depression and anxiety,” Brinkley said in a 2000 interview. As first lady, Carter became a leading advocate for mental health reform and guided legislative reform on behalf of the nation’s mentally ill. Her work resulted in passage of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, which advocated health insurance coverage for people with mental illness and for their protection against discrimination. Although most of the act’s funding was cut by the Reagan administration, “it still has an impact,” she said in 1998. Born Aug. 18, 1927, in Plains, Eleanor Rosalynn Smith always went by her second name. She was the eldest of four children of Edgar Smith and his wife, the former Frances “Allie” Murray. Rosalynn’s childhood ended, she later wrote, with the death of her father from leukemia when she was 13. Decades later, she would write “Helping Yourself Help Others,” a guide for caregivers that grew out of her own experience caring for her ailing father. To make ends meet, her mother took in sewing and eventually worked in the Plains post office. Rosalynn helped run the household and still managed to be valedictorian of her 1944 high school class. Although both Carters were from Plains, he was three years older, so “they didn’t really know each other,” she later said, and grew up attending different churches. As an adult, she converted to his Baptist faith. While a sophomore at Georgia Southwestern, then a junior college in nearby Americus, she was captivated by a photograph of Jimmy Carter in his U.S. Naval Academy uniform that was displayed by his sister Ruth, who was Rosalynn’s best friend. He seemed “glamorous and out of reach,” she later wrote, but Ruth arranged for them to work together on a Carter family project in June 1945, and he took Rosalynn to the movies that same night. “She’s the girl I want to marry,” he told his mother after their first date, according to an oft-repeated story. On July 7, 1946, they were married after his graduation from the Naval Academy. Soon after, they reported to his first duty station, Norfolk, Va., and had their first child the following July. “I was away for the first time and had a baby,” she later recalled. “Jimmy was gone much of the time, and I had to take care of everything. It taught me that I could do what I had to do.” She soon thought of Navy life as exciting as they moved around the country, living in Connecticut, Hawaii, San Diego and New York and having three sons between 1947 and 1952. Their daughter, Amy, would be born in 1967. When his father died of cancer in 1953, Jimmy Carter decided to abandon his Navy career and return to Plains to take over his family’s peanut business, which was in disarray. Rosalynn was nearly inconsolable. “I argued. I cried. I even screamed at him,” she recalled years later. “I loved our life in the Navy. I didn’t want to live in Plains. I had left there, moved on. I thought the best part of my life had ended.” Things in Plains were dire. It was 1954, and a drought had devastated the peanut, corn and cotton crops. The Carters made less than $200 that year, the equivalent of just $2,000 in 2021. The next year, as the business was turning around, Jimmy asked Rosalynn if she would help in the office. After taking a correspondence course in bookkeeping and accounting, she took over the books for the family enterprise. By the time Jimmy began his campaign for the White House, revenue from their enterprises had grown to more than $2 million a year. They grew together as full partners, and when he successfully ran for the state Senate in 1962, she helped him campaign — and kept the business running back home. Once again, she enjoyed a new role: political wife. When Jimmy lost his first race for governor — to segregationist Lester Maddox— she was there to help him strategize, and successfully rebound when he ran again in 1970. Though a political unknown outside Georgia, Jimmy Carter set his sights on Washington just four years later when he announced he was running for president. The Carters often campaigned separately to get his name out before the public, and Rosalynn frequently put in 18-hour days. When he beat President Gerald Ford in the general election, she was given major credit for the victory.