Rosalynn Carter, former first lady and tireless humanitarian who advocated for mental health issues, dies at 96

Former U.S. first lady Rosalynn Carter poses for a portrait in New York City, New York, on Friday, September 23, 2011. Carter was among nearly a dozen current and former first ladies who gathered to explore ways to grow her leadership roles as part of RAND’s African First Ladies Initiative. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady and Georgia-raised humanitarian who championed mental health care, provided constant political advice to her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, and was a model of graceful longevity for the nation, died Sunday, according to the Carter Center.

She was 96 years old.

She was widely regarded for her political astuteness, and received special praise for her keen electoral instincts, her down-to-earth appeal and her work on behalf of the White House, including her service as an envoy to Latin America.

Carter dedicated herself to several social causes throughout her public life, including programs that supported health care resources, human rights, social justice, and the needs of seniors.

“Twenty-five years ago, we did not dream that one day people could truly recover from mental illness,” Carter said at a mental health symposium in 2003. “Today it is a very real possibility.”

“For someone who has worked on mental health issues for as long as I have,” he added, “this is a miraculous breakthrough and an answer to my prayers.”

Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, share a moment aboard his campaign plane on October 24, 1976.

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at the end of may In 2023, the Carter Center, the couple’s human rights group, announced that they had been diagnosed with dementia. “She continues to live happily at home with her husband, enjoying the spring in Plains and visits with her loved ones,” the organization said in a statement.

Bess Truman, the wife of President Harry Truman, is the only first lady to outlive Rosalynn Carter, according to the National Library of First Ladies. (Truman died in 1982, at age 97.) Jimmy and Rosalynn were the longest-married presidential couple in American history.

The Carters won admiration for their humanitarian projects after they left the White House. They were closely linked to Habitat for Humanity, regarded by the charity as “tireless advocates, active fundraisers and some of our best hands-on construction volunteers”.

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in Plains, Georgia, on August 18, 1927, the first of four children raised by Allethea Murray Smith and Wilburn Edgar Smith. Rosalynn’s father died when she was 13 and her mother became a dressmaker to support her family.

Losing her father at such a young age forced Rosalynn to take on additional responsibilities alongside her mother. But the family unit managed to stay afloat.

Rosalynn finished high school and enrolled at Georgia Southwestern College. In 1945, after her freshman year, she went on a date with Jimmy Carter, a childhood friend of the family who was home from the United States Naval Academy.

Rosalynn Carter during Habitat for Humanity – Jimmy Carter Work Project 2005 – Day 2 at Benton Harbor in Benton Harbor, Michigan, USA.

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“She’s the girl I want to marry,” Jimmy Carter told his mother after their first outing, according to a biography compiled by the White House Historical Association.

They married the following year, on July 7, 1946. They moved to Norfolk, Virginia, Jimmy’s first duty station after graduation. But life as a Navy family meant they had to move frequently.

Their four children were each born in different states: John William in Virginia, James Earl III in Hawaii, Donnel Jeffrey in Connecticut, and Amy Lynn, their only daughter, in Georgia.

Jimmy’s father died in 1953, sending the couple back to Plains to run the family peanut business. Rosalynn soon began working for the company full time, helping with accounting and other administrative functions.

Jimmy decided to launch a political career in the early 1960s and won a seat in the Georgia State Senate in 1962.

He unsuccessfully sought the governorship in 1966; During that campaign, Rosalynn learned more about the challenges faced by people with mental illness, as she told Time magazine in 2010.

“The more I thought about it and found out, the more I thought it was just a terrible situation without attention,” he said.

Rosalynn helped lay the groundwork for her husband’s winning bid for governor of Georgia in 1970 and, six years later, advised her husband’s grassroots presidential campaign. Political journalists noticed her liveliness along the way.

“Rosalynn Carter, 49, the candidate’s wife, campaigns with the tireless racehorse energy that has characterized Carter’s operation for the past 18 months,” wrote US News & World Report in May 1976.

“Not only that, her top advisors claim that Mrs. Carter is her husband’s most influential political advisor,” the article’s author added.

Rosalynn attracted special attention for the skillful way she connected with voters, enlisting her husband’s support with down-to-earth warmth. In an unusual move for the time, she traveled across the country alone, defending her husband on her own terms.

A portrait of President Jimmy Carter and his extended family. Left to right: Judy (Mrs. Jack Carter); Jason James Carter; Jack (John William Carter); Annette (Mrs. Jeff Carter); Jeff (Donnel Jeffrey Carter); first lady Rosalynn Carter; daughter Amy Lynn Carter; President Carter; daughter-in-law Caron Griffin Carter with James Earl Carter IV; and his son Chip (James Earl Carter III).

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“Soft-spoken and understated, Mrs. Carter prefers face-to-face meetings with voters,” US News & World Report wrote in June 1976. “Campaigning in 30 states, she has scheduled frequent plant gate sessions. and shopping centers.”

Running as a political outsider and a symbolic break from the disillusioned post-Watergate era, Jimmy defeated President Gerald Ford in 1976. The press quickly realized that Rosalynn would not be content to remain on the sidelines in Washington.

“Rosalynn Carter will not simply be an East Wing ornament, a First Lady content to redecorate the White House or preside over soirées,” Newsweek’s Jane Whitmore wrote in January 1977.

“There are so many things you can do,” Rosalynn told Whitmore, “and there are things I want to do. I want to work on mental health and senior issues, independently and on my own.”

“Jimmy always talked to me, like when he chose the vice president or the cabinet,” he added. “I have always been involved in meetings. I always tell him what I think, even if I don’t agree, and I will continue to do so.”

Rosalynn established herself as an active part of her husband’s administration.

She participated in Cabinet meetings, attended key briefings, spoke on behalf of the White House at ceremonial meetings, served as an honorary member of a mental health commission and traveled to Latin American countries as the president’s personal envoy.

Jimmy Carter’s own presidency was considered a mixed bag, with many Americans (including some Democrats) believing him to be an ineffective commander in chief, especially when the Iranian hostage crisis dominated headlines in late 1979.

Rosalynn worked tirelessly trying to re-elect her husband to a second term in 1980, a campaign Jimmy lost to Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood star and California governor who represented the growing conservative movement.

She was said to be devastated by the loss of her husband and the apparent repudiation of his presidency by so many voters. But she made it clear to political reporters that she was trying to look to the future.

“I think you accept it,” Rosalynn said in a November 1980 article by veteran UPI reporter Helen Thomas. “When you’ve done everything you can do, that’s all you can do. It was out of our hands.”

He vowed to “speak out” about the issues closest to his heart, adding: “You go from one phase of your life to the next… I think it’s going to be exciting.”

The next phase of Rosalynn Carter’s life proved to be fruitful. She wrote several books, including the 1984 memoir “First Lady From Plains,” as well as three books on mental health.

The Carters remained committed to improving the lives of people around the world, winning several awards and honors along the way.

In 1982, they founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit human rights organization created in partnership with Emory University in Atlanta. Seven years later, she founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University.

She held annual mental health symposiums at the Carter Center for more than three decades, bringing together experts and advocates for discussions on mental illness, family coping, funding care services, research support, and stigma reduction.

The two received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in August 1999. Clinton, speaking at the Carter Center, praised the couple for their humanitarian achievements.

“Rarely do we honor two people who have dedicated themselves so effectively to promoting freedom in all those ways,” Clinton said. “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have done more good things for more people and in more places than any other couple on the face of the Earth.”

In recent years, the Carters have appeared publicly less frequently. But during the 2020 presidential election, they recorded a tribute video to Joe Biden that aired during the televised portion of the Democratic National Convention.

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