Rosalynn Carter is eulogized before family and friends as husband Jimmy bears silent witness
Nov 28, 2023, 10:32 PM | Updated: Nov 29, 2023, 11:52 am
PLAINS, Ga. (AP) — Her frail husband a silent witness, Rosalynn Carter was celebrated by her family and closest friends Wednesday at her funeral in the same tiny town where she and Jimmy Carter were born, forever their home base as they climbed to the White House and traveled the world for humanitarian causes.
The former first lady, who died Nov. 19 at the age of 96, had her intimate funeral at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, where she and her husband spent decades welcoming guests and where a wooden cross Jimmy Carter fashioned in his woodshop is displayed. Earlier tributes were held in nearby Americus and in Atlanta.
The former president was in attendance in his wheelchair, with her one last time in his life.
Maranatha Pastor Tony Lowden told the service that Rosalynn Carter wasn’t just the first lady but “served every nation around the world.”
Describing her competitive nature, the pastor spoke to the mourners in what he imagined to be the voice of Rosalynn Carter: “She would say to you today, ‘don’t grieve for me, for now I’m free. … Jimmy tried to beat me here. I got here first. I won the prize. Tell him I beat him and I’m waiting on him.’”
“But,” Lowden continued, “she would say ‘don’t stop. There’s too many homeless people in the world. There’s still too many people who don’t have equal rights.’ … She would tell you don’t stop. Become that virtuous woman. And men, if you’re listening, make room for the virtuous woman.”
Her burial plot will one day be shared with her husband of 77 years. The former president, now 99, left home hospice care to attend Tuesday’s memorial, where two other presidents and all the living first ladies joined the extended Carter family, as well as Wednesday’s more intimate hometown funeral.
Vernita Sampson, a school bus driver and Plains native, drove a group of area high school students, all wearing Future Farmer of America jackets, to downtown Plains, where hundreds of people paid tribute to the former first lady and soaked up the history of the day.
“They were people you could relate to, not this high standard where they were up here and, you know, we’re all down there,” said Sampson, 58. “We never get used to death, no matter who we are or how long you have lived. But knowing that her suffering is no longer and to celebrate that she did live a long life, a very happy and productive life, that gives you joy.” —
At the service, the mourning came with affectionate stories of life with Rosalynn Carter and some laughs.
“It occurs to me that dad got used to mom disagreeing with him because she was really good at it,” son Jack Carter said. “And she became a partner in the true sense of the word, where they had equal footing.”
Some family members wore leis, as a celebration of how much Rosalynn Carter loved living in Hawaii during the couple’s Navy years and learning to hula dance while Jimmy Carter was stationed there.
Jimmy Carter met his future wife only a few days after his mother delivered her.
Coming from that town of about 600 — then and now — Rosalynn Carter changed lives across America and the developing world, mourners were told at her services this week. Jimmy Carter’s closest political adviser and a political force in her own right, she advocated for better mental health care and underappreciated caregivers in millions of U.S. households. Traveling overseas, she fought disease, famine and the abuse of women and girls.
Even so, she never stopped being the small-town Southerner whose cooking repertoire leaned heavily on mayonnaise and pimento cheese, Jason Carter said as he told endearing stories about his grandmother.
The Atlanta events reflected the grandest chapters of Rosalynn Carter’s life. Mourners viewed her casket steps from The Carter Center she and her husband co-founded after leaving the White House, then she was honored at a service filled with the music of a symphony chorus, a majestic pipe organ and fellow Habitat for Humanity ambassadors Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. President Joe Biden, former President Bill Clinton and the first ladies joined Jimmy Carter and their four children in the front row, in front of more than 1,000 congregants in suits, ties and dresses.
The proceedings Wednesday underscored her simpler constants. The sanctuary in Plains seats fewer people than the balcony at Glenn Memorial in Atlanta. Maranatha, tucked away at the edge of Plains where the town gives way to cotton fields, has no powerful organ; instead the cross her husband made and offering plates he turned on his lathe. Some of the congregants wore casual attire.
Yet her imprint went well beyond Plains. Whenever she heard of suffering among her friends or neighbors, she would say, ”’Get me their phone numbers so that Jimmy and I can call them,’” Lowden said. But “Rosalynn Carter was someone who would look at children from Sudan or Cambodia and say ‘That’s my baby, too.’”
Several speakers addressed the former first lady’s resilience, perhaps most evident when her husband was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980. “When they lost re-election, she thought the best part of her life was over,” Josh Carter said of his grandmother. Then came The Carter Center and its work on human rights, “and she knew that was the best part of their life.”
Elaine Larkin, who lives in nearby Ellaville, worked at the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregivers at the former first lady’s alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University.
“We had one meeting where some people kept saying ’RAHZ-lyn,” Larkin recalled, rolling her eyes at the common mispronunciation. “She just sat there and smiled. And when she got up to leave she leaned over to me and said very quietly, ‘Elaine, would you please tell them it’s ‘ROSE-lyn.’”
Lowden, the Carters’ longtime friend and personal minister, also officiated Tuesday, emphasizing that Rosalynn Carter’s work, from the Georgia statehouse when Jimmy Carter was governor to the 120-plus countries that she visited, was an extension of her faith.
After the funeral, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren walked alongside an SUV carrying Jimmy Carter as Rosalynn Carter was carried from Marantha for the last time through the town where she lived for more than 80 of her 96 years.
The motorcade passed holiday lights and decorations including a photo collage in front of the downtown tree featuring the “First Lady of Plains.”
The route also included the old high school where she was valedictorian during World War II, Plains Baptist Church where she and the former president were once outliers arguing for racial integration, the commercial district where she became Jimmy’s indispensable partner in their peanut business, the old train depot where she helped run the winning 1976 presidential campaign, and Plains Methodist Church, where as an 18-year-old in 1946, she married young Navy Lt. Jimmy Carter.
The route ended in what locals call “the Carter compound,” property that includes their one-story ranch house, the pond where she fished and security outposts for the Secret Service agents who protected her for 47 years.
Her burial site is within view of the front porch of the home where the 39th American president still lives.
This story has been updated to correct pastor’s surname to Lowden, not Snowden.