Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter could not remember their first meeting. She was a newborn. He wasn’t long out of diapers himself, a would-be U.S. president peering down at the future first lady his mother had delivered a few days earlier.
What flourished in the near-century to follow was a partnership that won the Georgia governor’s office, the White House and then propelled the Carters through four decades as global humanitarians. Undergirding that path was a small-town love story that made them more than a power couple: They were life mates and best friends.
Rosalynn Carter died Nov. 19 at the age of 96. The former president, now 99, was with her when at their home in Plains, where they lived all their lives, with the exceptions of his college and Navy years, one gubernatorial term and their White House years from 1977-81.
“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” Jimmy Carter said in a statement released upon her death by The Carter Center, which they co-founded in 1982 after leaving Washington. “She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalynn was in the world, I always knew somebody loved and supported me.”
It is not known whether the 39th president, confined mostly to a wheelchair and hospital bed in his 10th month of hospice care, will attend tributes that begin Monday. Those close to the family say they expect he will make every effort, especially for an invitation-only funeral Wednesday in Plains and private burial in a plot the couple eventually will share.
“It’s hard to think of one of them without the other,” said Jill Stuckey, a longtime friend who saw the couple often during Rosalynn Carter’s last months.
The former first lady often campaigned separately from her husband to expand their reach: “If I go with Jimmy I just sit there,” she once said. “I can use my time better than that.”
As president, Jimmy Carter sent her abroad as an official diplomat. She attended Cabinet meetings. They avoided dancing with others at White House dinners. After the presidency, they built The Carter Center together in Atlanta. They met with world leaders, monitored elections and fought disease in developing nations.
They read the Bible together each night, even over the phone, a practice that endured as they aged. Sometimes they read aloud in Spanish to stay proficient in their second language. And they held hands often: at home, in church, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue on Inauguration Day in 1977, and as she lay on her deathbed in the home they built before his first legislative election in 1962.
“We don’t go to sleep with some remaining differences between us,” the former president told The Associated Press in 2021.
Rosalynn said she first “fell in love with Jimmy’s picture” hanging on his sister’s bedroom wall. Then, in the summer of 1945, when he was home from the U.S. Naval Academy, Ruth Carter convinced her brother to go on a date with Rosalynn.
The next morning Jimmy Carter told his mother he would marry Rosalynn Smith.
“I had never had a boy kiss me on a first date,” she recalled. Yet she saw seeds of something deeper than teenage romance. Usually shy, she found she “could talk to him, actually talk to him.”
They were married July 7, 1946, and set off for his first Naval appointment.
When James Earl Carter Sr. died in 1953, his namesake son moved his family back to Georgia — without asking his wife. He remembered six decades later how “cool” she was to him for months because of the move, with the rift not closing completely until she made herself his indispensable business partner in their peanut farming operation.
Still, the future president did not consult his wife when he launched his first political campaign. In that instance, however, Rosalynn Carter was on board and willingly stayed behind to run the business in Plains when he went to Atlanta as a state senator.
“I was more of a political partner than a political wife, and I never felt put upon,” she said. “I only had to call him home once, when one of our old brick warehouses collapsed, dumping several hundred tons of peanuts into the street.”
Family and close friends remember as a bond that thrived not just on mutual respect but competitiveness.
They raced to finish writing their next books or best the other in tennis, skiing or any other pursuit in their later years. They kept score as they fished.
“‘How many did she catch? How big were they?’” Stuckey recalled the former president asking her one day as she bounced between the two on the edges of their pond in Plains. “I’d go back to Rosalynn, and she’d say, ‘What’d he say? How many does he have?’”
Eventually, that friendly competition gave way to two nonagenarians trying to take care of each other.
Chip Carter, the couple’s son who spent much of the recent months with his parents, told The Washington Post that as his mother declined rapidly in her final days, the former president asked to be alone with her. First, Jimmy Carter sat at her bedside in his wheelchair. Later, aides moved his bed to the foot of hers.
He remained there until she was gone, then asked to be with his once-shy bride one more time, just Jimmy and Rosalynn.
“They were never alone, really, during their time on this earth,” grandson Jason Carter said. “They always had each other.”
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