Rosalynn Carter, former first lady and tireless humanitarian, dies at age 96

Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady and humanitarian who championed mental health care, provided constant political advice to her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, and modeled a graceful life for the nation, died Sunday at her home in Plains, Georgia, according to the Carter Center.

Carter was 96. She had entered hospice care at her home on Friday.

Former President Carter said in a statement shortly after her death: “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 knew I always wanted someone to love and support me.”

Widely regarded for her political acumen, Rosalynn Carter was particularly praised for her keen electoral instincts, down-to-earth appeal, and work on behalf of the White House, including serving as envoy to Latin America.

She devoted herself to numerous social causes during her public life, including programs that supported health resources, human rights, social justice, and the needs of the elderly.

“Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t dream that people would one day be able to recover from mental illness,” Carter said at a mental health symposium in 2003. “Today, it’s a very real possibility.”

“For someone who has worked with mental health issues as long as I have,” she added, “this is a miraculous development and an answer to my prayers.”

First Lady Rosalynn Carter greets people at a campaign event in New Hampshire on October 24, 1979.Diana Walker/Getty Images file

In late May, the Carter Center, the couple’s human rights group, announced that she had been diagnosed with dementia. “She continues to live happily at home with her husband, enjoying spring in the Plains and visiting loved ones,” the organization said in a statement.

Bess Truman, wife of President Harry Truman, is the only first lady to have lived longer, according to the National First Ladies Library. (Bess Truman died in 1982, aged 97.) Jimmy and Rosalynn were the longest-married presidential couple in US history.

The Carters earned admiration for their humanitarian projects after they left the White House. They were closely associated with Habitat for Humanity, considered by the charity to be “tireless advocates, active fundraisers and some of our best hands-on construction volunteers.”

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in Plains, Georgia, on August 18, 1927, the first of four children raised by Allethea Murray Smith and Wilburn Edgar Smith. Rosalynn’s father died when she was 13, and her mother became a seamstress to support her family.

The loss of her father at such a young age forced Rosalynn to take on additional responsibilities alongside her mother. But the family managed to stay afloat.

Rosalynn graduated high school and enrolled at Georgia Southwestern College. In 1945, after her freshman year, she went on a date with Jimmy Carter, a childhood friend of the family, who was home from the US Naval Academy.

President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, dance at the annual Congressional Christmas Ball at the White House on December 13, 1978.Ira Schwarz/AP file

“She’s the girl I want to marry,” Jimmy Carter told his mother after their first outing, according to a biography compiled by the White House Historical Association.

They were married the following year, on July 7, 1946. They moved to Norfolk, Virginia – Jimmy’s first duty station after graduation. But life as a navy family meant that they often had to move.

Their four children were each born in different states: John William in Virginia, James Earl III in Hawaii, Donnel Jeffrey in Connecticut, and Amy Lynn—their only daughter—in Georgia.

Jimmy’s father died in 1953, sending the couple back to the Plains to run the family peanut business. Rosalynn soon began working for the company full-time, assisting with accounting and other front-office functions.

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Jimmy decided to start a political career in the early 1960s and won a Senate seat in Georgia in 1962.

He unsuccessfully sought the governorship in 1966; during that campaign, Rosalynn learned more about the challenges faced by people with mental illnesses, as she told Time magazine in 2010.

“The more I thought about it and found out, the more I thought it was just a terrible situation with no attention,” she said.

Rosalynn Carter works at a Habitat for Humanity event in Benton Harbor, Mich., on June 21, 2005.R. Diamond / WireImage file

Rosalynn helped lay the groundwork for her husband’s winning bid for Georgia governor in 1970 and six years later advised her husband’s grassroots presidential campaign. Political reporters noticed her liveliness on the trail.

“Rosalynn Carter, 49, the candidate’s wife, is campaigning with the tireless race-horse type of energy that has characterized Carter’s operation for the past 18 months,” wrote US News & World Report in May 1976.

“Not only that: Top aides claim that Mrs. Carter is her husband’s most influential political adviser,” the article’s author added.

Rosalynn drew particular attention for the skillful way she connected with voters, tapping into their support for her husband with down-to-earth warmth. In an unusual move for the era, she traveled across the country on her own, making the case for her husband on her own terms.

“Mrs. Carter, low-key and soft-spoken, prefers face-to-face meetings with voters,” wrote US News & World Report in June 1976. “In her 30-state campaign, she has scheduled frequent sessions at factory gates and shopping malls.”

Jimmy, running as a political outsider and a symbolic break from the disillusioned post-Watergate era, defeated President Gerald Ford in 1976. The press quickly realized that Rosalynn would not be content to stay on the sidelines in Washington.

“Rosalynn Carter will not be merely an East Wing ornament, a first lady who will rebuild the White House or preside over soirees,” Newsweek’s Jane Whitmore wrote in January 1977.

“There’s so much you can do,” Rosalynn told Whitmore, “and there are things I want to do. I want to work on mental health and senior issues—independently, on my own.”

Rosalynn Carter and former President Jimmy Carter walk on farmland he owns in their hometown of Plains, Ga., on Feb. 8, 2017.David Goldman / AP File

“Jimmy always talked things over with me, like when he was picking the vice president or the cabinet,” she added. “I have always been involved in the meetings. I always tell him what I think, even if I disagree – and I will continue to do so.”

Rosalynn established herself as an active part of her husband’s administration.

She attended cabinet meetings, participated in key briefings, spoke on behalf of the White House at ceremonial gatherings, served as an honorary member of a mental health commission, and traveled to Latin American nations as the president’s personal envoy.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency itself was judged to be a mixed bag, and many Americans—including some Democrats—believed that he was an ineffective commander-in-chief, especially as the Iran hostage crisis dominated the headlines in late 1979.

Rosalynn worked tirelessly to re-elect her husband to a second term in 1980 – a campaign Jimmy lost to Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood star and governor of California who represented the rising conservative movement.

She was said to have been saddened by her husband’s loss and the apparent rejection of his presidency by so many voters. But she made it clear to political reporters that she was trying to look to the future.

“I think you accept it,” Rosalynn was quoted as saying in a November 1980 article by longtime UPI reporter Helen Thomas. “When you’ve done everything you possibly can, that’s all you can do. It was out of our hands.”

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She promised to “speak out” about the issues close to her heart, adding: “You go from one phase of your life to the next phase of life. … I think it’s going to be exciting.”

The next phase of Rosalynn Carter’s life proved fruitful. She wrote several books, including the 1984 memoir “First Lady From Plains” as well as three books on mental health.

Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn Carter, sit together at a reception to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary in Plains, Ga., on July 10, 2021.John Bazemore / Pool via AP File

The Carters remained committed to improving the lives of people around the world, winning numerous awards and honors along the way.

In 1982, they founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit human rights organization created in partnership with Emory University in Atlanta. Seven years later, she established the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University.

First Lady Rosalynn Carter in the Vermeil Room of the White House on February 18, 1977.White House via AP file

She held annual mental health symposia at the Carter Center for more than three decades, bringing together experts and advocates for discussions on mental illness, family management, funding for care services, supporting research and reducing stigma.

The two were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in August 1999. Speaking at the Carter Center, Clinton praised the couple for their humanitarian achievements.

“Rarely do we honor two people who have devoted themselves so effectively to advancing freedom in all these ways,” Clinton said. “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have done more good things for more people in more places than any other couple on the face of the earth.”

In recent years, the Carters made less frequent public appearances. But during the 2020 presidential election, they recorded a video tribute to Joe Biden that aired during the televised portion of the Democratic National Convention.

Tributes for the former first lady poured in Sunday, with many reflecting on her partnership with her husband and devotion to the causes she championed.

President Joe Biden said the Carter family brought “grace” to the office in remarks following the news that Carter had died.

He said Carter had “integrity” like her husband, adding: “Imagine they were together for 77 years.”

Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush said in a statement that Carter was “a woman of dignity and strength.”

“There was no greater advocate for President Carter, and their partnership set a wonderful example of loyalty and fidelity,” the Bushes said. “She leaves an important legacy in her work to destigmatize mental health.”

Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Carter “a compassionate and committed champion of human dignity everywhere” in a post on X.

“Rosalynn will forever be remembered as the embodiment of a life lived with purpose,” they said. “Hillary and I are deeply grateful for her extraordinary service to our nation and the world and for more than forty years of friendship.”

Former President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump said they mourn the loss of “the devoted first lady, a great humanitarian, a champion of mental health and a beloved wife of her husband of 77 years, President Carter.”

The couple said Carter “leaves a legacy of extraordinary achievement and national service.”

Former first lady Michelle Obama said Carter “used his platform in deeply meaningful ways,” citing his work on mental health care, better care for older adults, affordable housing and women’s rights.

“When our family was in the White House, Rosalynn would join me for lunch every now and then and give a few words of advice and always — always — a helping hand.” Obama wrote. “She reminded me to make the role of First Lady my own, just as she did. I will always remain grateful for her support and her generosity.”

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the former House speaker, praised “the transformative change she brought to mental health and care, inspiring people around the world to work toward a better future for all.” in a post on X.

A Secret Service spokesman called Carter a “darling, a beacon of compassion.”

“Your compassion, diplomacy and penchant for making society better for the less fortunate was an inspiration to an entire generation,” the Secret Service said in a statement. “It has been our honor to protect and serve you all these years. You were truly a treasure to our nation and our intelligence family.”

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