ATLANTA — Former first lady Rosalynn Carter has died. Carter was 96.
The Carter Center announced Sunday that Rosalyn passed away at 2:10 p.m. at her home in Plains, Georgia. She died peacefully, with family by her side.
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Mrs. Carter’s family announced on Friday that she had entered hospice care at her home.
The move came about 6 months after The Carter Center announced that Mrs. Carter had been diagnosed with dementia.
In a statement from the center, it said at the time that she continued “to live happily at home with her husband, enjoying spring in Plains and visits with loved ones.”
For Carter, there was no place like home, and home was Plains, Georgia.
The eldest of four children, Carter was born Eleanor Rosalynn Smith in 1927.
In their early years, Carter and her family lived in poverty. Her father died of leukemia when she was 13. She called that the end of her childhood.
“My father died when I was 13. I was the oldest of four children, my mother was an only child. She was totally dependent on me,” Carter said.
Her father’s death forced her mother out of a sheltered life and into the workforce.
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“I saw her develop into a very strong person. Sent all of us to college … just was really wonderful. And I think what I learned from her was that you can do what you have to do, no matter what situation you find yourself in,” Carter said.
After her father’s death, Carter worked hard to achieve her father’s dream of her going to college.
Carter graduated as salutatorian of Plains High School, then attended Georgia Southwestern College.
She first met Jimmy Carter when they were children. He was her friend’s brother. They started dating when Jimmy Carter was attending the U.S. Naval Academy. After his graduation, they married when she was 18 and he was 21.
Between 1947 and 1952, they had three sons: Jack, Chip and Jeff Carter.
When Jimmy Carter’s father died, the couple took over the family farm in Plains. Rosalynn Carter took accounting courses and helped with the farm supply business.
“Pretty soon, I knew as much of or more on paper about a business than he did, or I could advise him and he began asking me for advice, so it just kind of developed into … I think we developed a mutual respect for each other,” Carter said.
The 1960s brought two big events for the Carters: They had a daughter named Amy and the family went into politics.
Rosalynn Carter hit the campaign trail for her husband when he ran for governor of Georgia. After a first defeat, Jimmy Carter won with a second try in 1970.
Then, when her husband decided to run for president, Rosalynn Carter campaigned alone on his behalf in 41 states. Jimmy Carter won the election in November 1976.
“I never dreamed I’d be first lady. And I had a lot to learn. I had some good help along the way,” Carter said.
As first lady, Rosalynn Carter continued the work she started as the first lady of Georgia: advocacy for mental health.
“With my mental health program, I could get the attention of Congress, of people who made the decisions. I was not always pleased with their reactions to my requests, but at least focused attention on the issue, and that was good,” Carter said.
That work continued even after the Carters left the White House.
“When we came home from the White House, I knew I wanted to continue that work,” Carter said. “To me, one of the best things that has happened in my mental health work is a program to educate journalists about mental health issues. We call it mental health fellowships for journalists.”
Carter played a key role in the passage of a federal law requiring insurance to pay for mental health treatment on par with physical illnesses.
“I want my mental health work to carry on even after there is no more stigma, which I’m not sure will come in my lifetime, but I hope it will,” Carter said. “I wanted to take mental illnesses and emotional disorders out of the closet, to let people know it is all right to admit having a problem without the fear of being called crazy.”
Carter even took her push to recognize mental health to the Medical Society of the World Health Organization in May 1979, becoming the first sitting first lady to address members of the organization. She advocated the Mental Health Systems Act, which was signed into law the next year.
“It was a groundbreaking event as a first lady and groundbreaking for mental health, because on that day she stated that health is a human right and that you cannot have true health without recognizing mental health as a crucial component,” said Jason Carter during a virtual ceremony of the opening of the 74th World Health Assembly, where Carter was presented with an award for Global Health.
With the announcement of her dementia diagnosis, the Carter Center used it as an opportunity to teach other about mental health.
“Mrs. Carter has been the nation’s leading mental health advocate for much of her life. First in the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, then in the White House, and later at The Carter Center, she urged improved access to care and decreased stigma about issues surrounding mental health. One in 10 older Americans have dementia, a condition that affects overall mental health. We recognize, as she did more than half a century ago, that stigma is often a barrier that keeps individuals and their families from seeking and getting much-needed support. We hope sharing our family’s news will increase important conversations at kitchen tables and in doctor’s offices around the country,” the statement from the Carter Center said.
After leaving office, the Carters continued their life of public service, founding the nonprofit Carter Center in northeast Atlanta in 1982.
They made several trips overseas, many to Africa, where they concentrated their efforts on improving villagers’ health and farming practices.
“It’s really fulfilling, really rewarding to go to the countries we go to. In particular, people are suffering from disease, and we help them, and we go back and the disease is gone, like with Guinea worms,” Carter said.
In 2009, Mrs. Carter told Channel 2 Action News anchor John Pruitt that making a difference never got old.
“We go to Africa and we get so tired. And I’m not going to go again. And the next time something wonderful happens. You see children who grew up because we gave them medicine, or people who have latrines,” Carter said. “It’s so exciting that the next time, I’m ready to go again. Living with Jimmy Carter has been an adventure.”
The president and former first lady were passionate about helping those less fortunate. In November 2012, Channel 2 Action News was there as they helped build houses after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti. They took part in a weeklong effort to build 100 homes on 14 acres.
The Carters have also been avid supporters of Habitat for Humanity. We were also with them in August 2016 when the Carters helped with their 33rd work project in Memphis, Tennessee.
Just a year earlier, Jimmy Carter had successfully fought cancer.
Their passion to help Habitat for Humanity was found by mistake.
“I went to New York City one Sunday,” President Carter said. “Early in the morning, I jogged out to what he’d heard was a habitat site. When I got there, there were a bunch of students from New England working on a horrible project. I said on the spur of the moment, Rosalynn and I need to help you with this. "
In February 2017, we were with the Carters as they opened a new solar farm, 38 years after the president had solar panels installed on top of the White House.
Through it all, the Carters were partners in life and in love. But Rosalynn Carter was never one to want any of the spotlight.
“He makes the major decisions. He always consults me, and I always give him my advice and we do work things out together. But he’s the one who has done things, and I just helped him,” Carter said.
In July 2021, the Carters celebrated their 75th anniversary.
“My biggest secret is to marry the right person if you want to have a long-lasting marriage,” President Carter said during a celebration for the couple.
“Every day there needs to be reconciliation and communication between the two spouses,” the former president said, explaining that he and Rosalynn, both devout Christians, read the Bible together aloud each night — something they’ve done for years, even when separated by their travels. “We don’t go to sleep with some remaining differences between us,” he said.
Mrs. Carter noted the importance of finding common interests.
“Jimmy and I are always looking for things to do together.” Still, she emphasized a caveat: “Each (person) should have some space. That’s really important.”
In 2019, the couple became the longest-living president and first lady in U.S. history. They surpassed George H.W. and Barbra Bush’s record, with 26,765 days together at the time.
In August 2020, the former first lady was on hand for a ceremony in her hometown of Plains, Georgia when the town named a road that stretches past her childhood home, the Rosalynn Carter Trail.
The honor came just days after her 93rd birthday.
In August 2022, Channel 2′s Berndt Petersen went to Plains as the community celebrated Mrs. Carter’s 95th birthday.
For her birthday, she dedicated a new sculpture called “Dancing Monarchs.”
It stands a few feet from her childhood home in Plains, in a garden where her love of butterflies began when she was a little girl.
“She loved it so much, that she was back there this morning,” said LeAnne Smith, Carter’s niece.
Carter has been a longtime advocate to protect the monarch butterfly. The butterfly gardens she started in Plains have spread all over the world.
Just days before is 99th birthday, President and Mrs. Carter made an appearance at the Plains Peanut Festival.
Video from the festival showed the couple being driven around the festival in the back of an SUV with the windows down
The Carter Center said the city’s famed peanut butter ice cream might be on the former president’s lunch menu.
Prior to the festival, their grandson, Jason Carter, spoke to Good Morning America about his grandparents’ health.
“They are coming to the end, of course, at this time in their lives, but they are at peace, they are together, they’re at home, they’re in love and you don’t get much more than that and they don’t expect more,” Jason Carter said. “So they’ve had an incredible life.”
With a life of service and deep understanding for those who do the same, Carter’s passion leaves behind a mark on a small town in Georgia -- and the world.
“Well, millions are still suffering, but I hope that I have helped a bit,” Carter said.
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