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How Rosalynn Carter helped shape the rural town she returned to after the White House

PLAINS, Ga. – It's not the typical sight at a food drive: a woman with a walker and a Secret Service agent by her side, passing out bread, fresh fruits and peanuts to dozens of families.

But that's the enduring image Jan Williams has of former first lady Rosalynn Carter at a charity event in Plains, Georgia, pop. 600.

“She just kept saying ‘I want to help, I want to help,’” laughed Williams, a retired schoolteacher, when remembering that day from three years ago. “She was a special woman.”

Jan Williams sits in a chair in the Plains Historic Inn & Antique Mall as she shares memories of former first lady Rosalynn Carter on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.
Jan Williams sits in a chair in the Plains Historic Inn & Antique Mall as she shares memories of former first lady Rosalynn Carter on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

Williams, 74, is one of the hundreds of people in Plains mourning Rosalynn Carter, who, along with her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, has been a constant presence in the farming town for decades. Rosalynn Carter died in Plains on Nov. 19 at age 96.

In a rural area of southern Georgia 2½ hours from Atlanta, Plains is where the Carters were born, grew up, raised their family and decided to spend the rest of their lives after leaving the White House. In local businesses, they appear in photographs, paintings and on T-shirts. Placards throughout the town identify landmarks in the couple's life. And from chance encounters to decade-spanning friendships, the Carters have influenced the lives of Plains' residents as much as they've shaped the town.

Ahead of Rosalynn Carter's funeral service on Wednesday, those living in the town known as the birthplace and longtime home of the historic couple described the former first lady as a matriarch and a standard-bearer of goodness.

A collage of photos of former first lady Rosalynn Carter on a banner just across the railroad tracks from her husband, former president Jimmy Carter's campaign office in downtown Plains, Georgia on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.
A collage of photos of former first lady Rosalynn Carter on a banner just across the railroad tracks from her husband, former president Jimmy Carter's campaign office in downtown Plains, Georgia on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

'She will always be alive in Plains'

Stephanie Young, the owner of a trophy shop in Plains, said she was heartbroken by Rosalynn Carter’s death.

“We’re mourning a neighbor – a family member, basically,” Young, 51, said. “That’s how we know Rosalynn. Rosalynn and Jimmy made everybody feel like they’re part of one big family.”

Philip Kurland, owner of a political memorabilia shop in downtown Plains, said he first met Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter shortly after he moved with his wife to the rural farm town from Washington D.C.

After rushing to open his store ahead of the annual Plains Peanut Festival, Kurland told his wife, “I wonder if the Carters really live here.”

Moments later, the presidential power couple walked through the door. They thanked the Kurlands for moving to Plains and opening a new shop.

“I was stunned,” Kurland said.

Philip Kurland, owner of Plains Trading Post, tells stories of his interactions with former first lady Rosalynn Carter from when she would visit his store Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.
Philip Kurland, owner of Plains Trading Post, tells stories of his interactions with former first lady Rosalynn Carter from when she would visit his store Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

Not long after, he began receiving bags of pins, photos and other memorabilia from the Carters. “I know you’re probably going to sell this, but I want you to have it,” Kurland remembered Rosalynn Carter saying to him when she brought him gifts in person.

Between visits from the Carters, Kurland would occasionally interact with shoppers who told the store owner how Rosalynn Carter had changed their life. Some said they had read her books on caregiving or mental health; others said she had volunteered her time to help them through a tough situation.

On Monday, Kurland was among dozens of people along Main Street, in the heart of Plains, watching as Rosalynn Carter’s motorcade drove through town. In his store, Kurland laid out several copies of the former first lady's favorite button: a re-creation of Grant Wood’s 1930 painting “American Gothic,” with Jimmy Carter gripping a pitchfork and a smiling Rosalynn Carter beside him.

“She will always be alive in Plains,” Kurland said.

Buttons sold at Plains Trading Post depict former president Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter depict the couple as the two shown in the artwork ÒAmerican Gothic.Ó
Buttons sold at Plains Trading Post depict former president Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter depict the couple as the two shown in the artwork ÒAmerican Gothic.Ó

'The First Lady from Plains'

Rosalynn Carter was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith on Aug. 18, 1927. She was the eldest of four children and, after her father’s death when she was 13, Rosalynn Carter helped her mother raise her other siblings. While balancing a taxing home life, she graduated Plains High School in 1944 as valedictorian.

The following year, Jimmy Carter, on a break from the U.S. Naval Academy and looking for a date, saw his future wife on the steps of the Methodist church and asked her to a movie. The pair start dating, and in 1946 they began a marriage that would last 77 years.

After their wedding, Jimmy Carter’s Navy deployments kept them moving around for several years. When Jimmy Carter’s father died and he decided to move the family back to Plains, Rosalynn Carter was devastated.

“I didn’t want to live in Plains,” she wrote in her memoir. “I had left there, moved on, changed.”

What helped her overcome her misery, she said, was getting involved in the community. She started going to church again, rekindled old friendships and joined the local PTA and garden club. Meantime, her husband climbed the local political ranks.

“As each new project developed, our minds and our lives seemed to expand with them, and our ‘ordinary’ lives in Plains became more exciting,” she wrote. “We grew together – as full partners.”

The pair left Plains again, first for the governor’s mansion and then the White House. Ahead of each election, Rosalynn campaigned tirelessly for her husband, extolling to voters his virtue and experience.

Jimmy Carter with Wife Rosalynn Carter at the National Convention in Madison Square Garden in New York July 15, 1976.
Jimmy Carter with Wife Rosalynn Carter at the National Convention in Madison Square Garden in New York July 15, 1976.

After her husband won the presidency, Rosalynn Carter modernized the role of the first lady. She was the first to sit in on Cabinet meetings, hire a full staff and set up an office in the East Wing. Much more than a sounding board for the president, she was a trusted adviser and emissary who met one-on-one with foreign leaders in Latin America to propel the cause for human rights.

Among journalists in Washington, she was called “steel magnolia” – a reference to her affable demeanor, exemplified by her Southern accent and warm smile, as well as the resolution and rigor that helped propel her husband from the peanut farm to the White House.

After losing the election in 1980, the Carters returned to Plains and settled back in their modest ranch-style home, where they kept up the pace of their work, and, using their political cachet, immersed themselves in humanitarian projects.

They founded the Carter Center in 1982, and through its many programs, the nonprofit has improved democratic elections across the globe, nearly eradicated guinea worm and continued fighting the stigma and discrimination against people with mental illnesses – a cause for which Rosalynn Carter has been a prolific activist since her husband ran for governor.

A legacy of kindness and advocacy

The people of Plains often saw the couple out together riding bikes, walking along Main Street and dining at local eateries. They were a constant presence at Maranatha Baptist Church, where the former president taught Sunday school since the early 1980s.

President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, ride on a bicycle built for two in Plains, Georgia on Dec. 24, 1980. The bike was a gift to the Carters and after it was presented to them downtown they rode it to their nearby Plains home.
President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, ride on a bicycle built for two in Plains, Georgia on Dec. 24, 1980. The bike was a gift to the Carters and after it was presented to them downtown they rode it to their nearby Plains home.

But as their health declined in recent years, sightings of the longest-married couple in presidential history became infrequent.

For many Plains natives, the last time they saw Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter was at last year’s peanut festival where the couple made a surprise appearance. From the backseat of a passing car, the couple waved at crowds gathered along Main Street – a block-long strip of businesses serving as Plains' downtown.

“I ran outside when I heard they were there,” said Young, the trophy shop owner. “It had been so long. ... We were very excited to see them.”

In February, the Carter Center announced Jimmy Carter entered hospice care at home following multiple hospital stays. In May, it was made public that Rosalynn Carter had dementia.

After the death of his wife, the former president wrote in a statement, "Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished. ... As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”

Former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter sit together during a reception to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary on July 10, 2021, in Plains, Georgia. The Carter family shared news that Rosalynn Carter has dementia, The Carter Center announced Tuesday, May 30, 2023.
Former President Jimmy Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter sit together during a reception to celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary on July 10, 2021, in Plains, Georgia. The Carter family shared news that Rosalynn Carter has dementia, The Carter Center announced Tuesday, May 30, 2023.

Williams, who worked on the presidential campaign and is a close friend of the Carter family, said since Rosalynn Carter's death, she's been thinking about the song Jimmy Carter most often requested at church: “When We All Get to Heaven.”

“Rosalynn will be waiting for him,” Williams said. “And while I’m around, I’ll try to be ‘a little Mrs. Rosalynn’ and do lots of good things for other people ... because that’s what she did.”

Christopher Cann is a breaking news reporter for USA TODAY. Reach him via email at ccann@usatoday.com or follow him on X @ChrisCannFL.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Rosalynn Carter remembered in beloved hometown Plains, Georgia