Under the baobab: Rosalynn Carter lived life full of purpose and love

Rosalynn Smith Carter joined the ancestors this past week. She was 96. Married to President Jimmy Carter for 77 years, she transformed the role of first lady. While maintaining her traditional place as wife and mother she continued to be the President’s colleague, partner and chief advisor. She even attended cabinet meetings, explaining, “how can I help Jimmy, if I don’t know what’s going on?”

Most people attribute the expanded role of first lady to Eleanor Roosevelt, who became a world figure and helped establish the United Nations. But most of her service came after she was widowed, when FDR died. Rosalynn was with Jimmy from the very beginning to the end. Jimmy’s mother, Lillian, was the midwife when Rosalynn was born. Three-year-old Jimmy met his future wife in the crib and was there holding her hand at the end. Their love for each other was constant and fervent. It set ablaze all who came near them.

She was a role model for our family. We first met the Carters when he was running for Governor of Georgia. His predecessor had been a racist segregationist who gained national attention by attacking civil rights workers and using ax handles to drive Black folks out of his restaurants. The Carters were progressive Democrats who believed in human and civil rights. It was an unpopular position among Southern whites in 1970, nevertheless they won the statehouse. Six years later Carter defeated a post-Watergate smudged Gerald Ford and became President of the United States. Primarily because of the Iran hostage situation, Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980.

He became an active ex-President, probably the most active in history. They started the Carter Center, which among other accomplishments has nearly eradicated guinea worm. We met the Carters on the Lower East Side of New York with Habitat for Humanity, as they helped construct housing for poor and working people. They were approachable, friendly and working hard. Jo and I were also blessed to spend the night in the “Presidential Suite” in the Plains Historic Inn, the only hotel in Plains, Georgia.

Boomers who are past 70 years know that Jimmy probably won’t be with us much longer. Young folks get freaked out when you talk about death. But, those of us of a certain age understand that death is just a part of life. Death is sorrowful for those who must go on living. Yet, it is difficult — no, impossible — to sustain your life when half of it has moved on.

All lives have a purpose. It is joyous when you discover it. It is a blessing when you are able to pursue it. You are twice blessed when you have shared it with a beloved partner. Those of us who remain, for however short a moment, should celebrate the lives of these two lovers, Jimmy and Rosalynn, united in their love, melded in their purpose, merged in the majesty of lives lived well and worthwhile. We thank them for those lives. We will miss them.

“The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man—

Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,

By those, who in their turn shall follow them.

We shall live, that when our summons comes to join

The innumerable caravan, which moves

To that mysterious realm, where each shall take

His chamber in the silent halls of death,

We go not, like the quarry-slave at night,

Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed

By an unfaltering trust, we shall approach our grave,

Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch

About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

-”Thanatopsis,” William Cullen Bryant

Finally, good luck to the Penn State women’s volleyball team. And congrats to the No. 10 ranked Penn State football team. See you in Atlanta in the Peach Bowl.

Charles Dumas is a lifetime political activist, a professor emeritus from Penn State, and was the Democratic Party’s nominee for U.S. Congress in 2012. He was the 2022 Lion’s Paw Awardee and Living Legend honoree of the National Black Theatre Festival. He lives with his partner and wife of 50 years in State College.