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Rosalynn Carter tributes highlight her reach as first lady, humanitarian and small-town Baptist

The 99-year-old former president, who has spent the past 10 months in home hospice care, plans to attend a memorial church service Tuesday in Atlanta for his wife and partner of more than 77 years

Amy Carter
Amy Carter walks past a wreath honoring her mother during a wreath laying ceremony at the Rosalynn Carter Health & Human Services complex on the campus of Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, Georgia, Nov. 27, 2023.POOL (via REUTERS)

Hundreds turned out to salute Rosalynn Carter on Monday as the former U.S. first lady and global humanitarian made her final journey from her rural hometown to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta as her family began three days of memorials following her death at age 96.

The 99-year-old former president, who has spent the past 10 months in home hospice care, plans to attend a memorial church service Tuesday in Atlanta for his wife and partner of more than 77 years, The Carter Center confirmed. Rosalynn Carter died Nov. 19.

The tributes started Monday morning as Rosalynn Carter’s casket traveled by motorcade through the Carters’ native Sumter County, where well-wishers gathered along the route in their tiny hometown of Plains and attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the college from which she graduated in 1946.

Lyndea Brown drove to the short ceremony at Georgia Southwestern State University from nearby Albany, saying she wanted to salute “a remarkable woman” who attended local cancer benefits and fought for rural health services.

“They were always real hometown people,” Brown said. “We don’t get presidents and first ladies like that anymore, people who have true hometown roots and understand what it’s like to grow corn and peanuts and whatever else and to struggle over health care.”

During the stop at Rosalynn Carter’s alma mater, her four children — Jack, Chip, Jeff and Amy — watched as wreaths of white flowers were placed beside a statue of their mother on the campus where she founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving to advocate for millions of unpaid caregivers in American households.

Generations of the Carter family — including the former first lady’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren — accompanied the hearse to Atlanta, where she was to lie in repose as members of the public paid respects Monday evening at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

Two funerals, set for Tuesday in Atlanta and Wednesday in Plains, are for invited guests. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, longtime friends of the Carters, lead the dignitaries expected to attend the Atlanta service. Rosalynn Carter’s burial Wednesday in Plains is private.

The schedule, a product of detailed planning that involved the former first couple, reflects the range of Rosalynn Carter’s interests and impact. That includes her advocacy for better mental health treatment and the elevation of caregiving, her role as Jimmy Carter’s closest adviser and her status as matriarch of Plains and Maranatha Baptist Church, where she and the former president served in various roles after leaving the White House in 1981.

“All over the world, people are celebrating her life,” said Kim Fuller, the Carters’ niece, while teaching a Bible lesson Sunday at Maranatha. “And of course we’re coming into a week now where we’re gonna celebrate even more.”

A detailed schedule is available online. Events will be streamed and broadcast by independent media.

Some well-wishers began honoring Rosalynn Carter soon after her death, including an uptick in visitors to the Carter Presidential Center campus.

“Mental health is more openly talked about” because of Rosalynn Carter’s work to reduce the stigma attached to the conditions, said Brendan Green, a high school guidance counselor who came from Chicago.

“She was a pioneer in that field,” Green said. “What a great legacy.” Elizabeth Laudig, a registered nurse from Dallas, said she drove 12 hours to be in Georgia this week, starting with the wreath-laying ceremony in Americus. She said Rosalynn Carter’s emphasis on mental health and caregivers was especially inspiring to her as a nurse.

“She just quietly went about the business of trying to make the world a better place,” said Laudig, 54. “You know, she was not a showy or extravagant first lady, but she was humble, you know, kind, hardworking, and got things done for people because she cared about people.”

After the motorcade arrives in Atlanta, a brief service of repose was scheduled at the Carter Presidential Center before the public is allowed access.

The campus near downtown Atlanta includes the library and museum, and The Carter Center. The former first couple founded the center in 1982 to champion democracy, mediate international conflicts and fight disease in the developing world. Their work around the world redefined what former White House occupants can do after ceding political power.

The largest single service will be held Tuesday at Glenn Memorial Church on the Emory University campus. Emory helped the former first couple establish The Carter Center. Besides the Bidens, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, have announced plans to attend. Also expected are former President Bill Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as former first ladies Laura Bush, Michelle Obama and Melania Trump, according to The Carter Center.

Glenn is a Methodist congregation. The Carters married in 1946 at Plains Methodist Church, where Rosalynn Carter attended growing up. She joined her husband as a Baptist throughout their marriage.

Her final services at Maranatha will reflect their small-town Protestant roots: Church members are invited and also will eat a funeral meal with the Carter family the day of the service.

During her Sunday School hour, Fuller reminded her fellow Maranatha members that they are expected to provide dessert. “Whatever you want to bring is fine,” Fuller told them as she explained drop-off instructions. “Spread the word if you don’t mind.”

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