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Saturday, March 2, 2024
March 2, 2024

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Rosalynn and Jimmy: A life together, holding hands, to the end

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In a 2015 file photo, Jimmy Carter sneaks a kiss with Rosalynn while the couple works on a Habitat for Humanity build in Memphis.
In a 2015 file photo, Jimmy Carter sneaks a kiss with Rosalynn while the couple works on a Habitat for Humanity build in Memphis. (Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution) Photo Gallery

PLAINS, Ga. — The former president would usually be sitting in his favorite chair by the time Jill Stuckey arrived at the Plains home.

Stuckey would start the fire or, if it were a Sunday, set up the television for Jimmy Carter to watch his niece, Kim Fuller, teach Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church, followed by services at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

By herself and with a walker, Rosalynn Carter would soon come into the room, always ignoring Stuckey.

“She would beeline straight for President Carter,” Stuckey said. “And she wouldn’t just give him a peck on the cheek. She would give him a passionate kiss.”

Rosalynn Carter would then take her place on the couch. Without saying anything, Stuckey said both would reach out their hands to each other.

Stuckey, a longtime friend of the former first couple, paused for a moment and smiled through tears.

“They were married for 77 and a half years,” Stuckey said. “And they were still passionately in love with each other.”

A life and home built together

Jimmy Carter first laid eyes on Rosalynn Carter in 1927 when she was a baby, brought into the world by Carter’s mother Lillian Carter, who was a nurse. He married her on July 7, 1946. In 1961, they built a house together in Plains.

It was in that same house, together with Jimmy, that Rosalynn died this past Sunday after being diagnosed with dementia. She was 96.

“It’s like we’ve been anticipating a profound loss and that’s not a good feeling,” said Fuller, the niece, who remembers running around the house when it was still under construction. “But knowing that they were up there together the entire time and more often than not, family members were always with them, that gave me a sense of peace to know that they were not going to be alone.”

No one can remember many days in the more than three-quarters of a century that Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter were married when they were not together. She was with him in the Georgia governor’s mansion and the White House. She traveled the world with him as they worked to monitor elections, build homes and eradicate diseases through the Carter Center, their Atlanta-based nonprofit.

Even as they got older, and their health deteriorated, they worked to be together.

Last February, when the Carter family announced that the former president was entering home hospice, his primary reason for wanting to get back home, family members have said, was to take care of his wife. He turned 99 last month.

“There’s been several times they’ve had these setbacks. She’s had surgeries, he’s had surgeries and cancer. Not only in regular life were they better together, but they were better together when they were going through these medical issues,” said Curtis Kohlhaas, the Carter Center’s chief development officer.

“We saw it when they would be apart and it was very hard on them. I think we all know that emotional health is so important in convalescing and healing, and when they were apart, it was very hard on them. There was always this sense of them wanting to get out of the hospital and get back together with the other one.”

Fuller, the daughter of the late Billy Carter and the executive director of the Friends of Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, said the need to protect is a trait that all Carter men share.

‘His very important eyes and ears’

Kathy Cade has been close to Rosalynn Carter for nearly four decades, both professionally and as a friend. Cade worked with Rosalynn during Carter’s presidential campaign, and then in the White House, on special projects for the first lady.

Cade said the Carters’ relationship evolved, deepened and became “more rich over time.” In many ways, Cade said, Rosalynn was Jimmy’s “very important eyes and ears.”

“She would tell him like she saw it, and I think he valued that. It’s hard for people to be honest with the president of the United States,” said Cade, who is also a member of the Carter Center board.

Dr. Eve Byrd, director of the Carter Center’s Mental Health Program, witnessed the Carters interact during meetings in their later years, and said the warmth between the two was palpable. The former president often deferred to his wife in those meetings, particularly when it came to matters of mental health or caregiving.

“You could just see that they were so deeply connected with each other, and in tune with what the other was thinking,” said Byrd, who described them as “soulmates.”

“It would be all business, but then you could just see the affection for each other: with a tap, or a kiss on the cheek, or holding hands as they left the room.”

‘You’re in the family’

Jason Carter, a grandson of the former first couple, has spent many hours in their modest ranch house in Plains over the decades.

He said his grandparents went on walks and bike rides together, and that on Saturday afternoons they would have hot dogs and bloody marys. They also prayed together.

“They really did read the Bible every night with each other before bed. I mean, they really, truly did,” Jason Carter said this week on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Politically Georgia podcast.

The Carters also had a way of building a family beyond their four children, 12 grandchildren (one since deceased) and 14 great-grandchildren.

Kohlhaas met President Carter while he was a student at Emory University and, when he started working at the Carter Center, he grew close to Rosalynn Carter. He leases one of the Carter farms.

Stuckey met the Carters in 1994 at the old Capricorn Studios in Macon. Stuckey remembers trying to help Rosalynn Carter get gum off of her dress. By 2004, Stuckey bought a bed and breakfast in town and is now the superintendent of the Jimmy Carter National Historical Park.

“We’ve got to saying in the Carter group that once you’re in the family, you’re in the family,” Kohlhaas said. “So even though I’ve left at times and done other things, they’ve always been there when I’ve needed them.”

As it is in small towns, word spreads quickly. Stuckey said a steady flow of people have stopped by the national park. Fuller said someone noticed all of the media trucks in downtown Plains and asked her if the president had died.

When Fuller told him that it was in fact Rosalynn who had died, the man started weeping. There was a lot of crying in town.

“She was my hero. I could sit here for four hours and not tell you everything that Rosalynn did for this world,” Stuckey said. “It’s been tough because they’ve had some health issues. Watching your heroes get weaker is a tough thing to do.”

Kohlhaas hugged the crying Stuckey.

‘Same as mine’

In Rosalynn’s final years, Cade traveled to Plains every few months to visit with the Carters. They largely stayed inside the Carters’ home, occasionally eating lunch with a mutual friend who lived down the street.

She and Rosalynn reminisced about their lives together, recalling not just the profound moments, but the quieter moments shared between dear friends. Like when they shopped for beads in local markets in Africa, or when they spied on birds during one of their bird-watching endeavors.

“Even when she was in the beginning stages of her dementia, we still visited and talked about old times,” said Cade.

The Carters also reveled in the simple delights, like watching the birds as they flew in and out of their bird feeder. One time, as Cade sat with the couple, a bird with red markings fluttered by the window. Jimmy wanted to know what kind of bird it was. A house finch, Cade replied.

He proudly told Cade his “life list,” or the list that birders have seen in their lifetimes, was “one thousand and one birds.”

She asked the former president how many birds were on Rosalynn’s life list.

“Hers is the same as mine,” he said.

The morning after Rosalynn’s death, Fuller talked to one of the caregivers, who told her that the former president was “very sad.”

“Part of him died. She has been there for so long,” Fuller said. “It is hard for me to imagine them apart. When you saw one, you saw the other one.”