© 2023 KUAF
NPR Affiliate since 1985
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
It's the Season of Giving at KUAF! Learn how you can give to KUAF and get gifts in return!

Rosalynn Carter, transformative former first lady and mental health advocate, dies

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter looks at a birthday cake with her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, during his 90th birthday celebration held at Georgia Southwestern University, Oct. 4, 2014, in Americus, Ga.
Branden Camp
/
AP
Former first lady Rosalynn Carter looks at a birthday cake with her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, during his 90th birthday celebration held at Georgia Southwestern University, Oct. 4, 2014, in Americus, Ga.

Updated November 19, 2023 at 9:13 PM ET

Rosalynn Carter, the wife of former President Jimmy Carter and a longtime mental health advocate and humanitarian, died on Sunday in her home in Plains, Ga., surrounded by family, according to the Carter Center. She was 96.

The Carter Center announced Rosalynn Carter was in hospice care on Friday. Her family said earlier this year that she was diagnosed with dementia. Jimmy Carter, who is 99, has been in hospice care since February.

"Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished," the former president said in a statement. "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."

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden remembered the "hope, warmth and optimism" of the former first lady, in a joint statement released Sunday. They praised Carter's support for equal rights, as well as her advocacy on mental health issues and other causes. The lives of countless people, the White House statement said, are "better, fuller, and brighter because of the life and legacy of Rosalynn Carter."

Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush also praised Rosalynn Carter on Sunday, calling her "a woman of dignity and strength."

"There was no greater advocate of President Carter, and their partnership set a wonderful example of loyalty and fidelity. She leaves behind an important legacy in her work to destigmatize mental health. We join our fellow citizens in sending our condolences to President Carter and their family," the two said in a prepared statement.

Rosalynn Carter was first lady from 1977 to 1981 and was dubbed the "Steel Magnolia" by the press during her years in the White House for the toughness she exhibited behind the gentle persona she outwardly embraced. Throughout Jimmy Carter's time in public office, she was her husband's closest political adviser. She also revolutionized and professionalized the first lady role by expanding the office beyond hostess duties.

She lived most of her life in Plains, the Carters' hometown, and was deeply engaged in humanitarian work through the Carter Center in Atlanta, an organization she founded with her husband after leaving the White House.

Then-first lady Michelle Obama and former first ladies Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush and Rosalynn Carter attend the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on April 25, 2013, in Dallas.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Then-first lady Michelle Obama and former first ladies Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush and Rosalynn Carter attend the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on April 25, 2013, in Dallas.

A young romance with Jimmy Carter

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in 1927 in Plains, a small rural town of less than a thousand people where church and school were at the center of her life.

Raised during the Great Depression, Carter often said she didn't realize her family was poor since few around her were well-off.

Her father made a living as a farmer and as owner of the county's first auto shop. After he died from cancer when she was just 13, Carter took on a caregiving role as the oldest of four siblings.

"She came from humble roots," said Kathy Cade, a senior official at the Carter Center who also worked alongside Carter in the White House. "She was really a woman of almost the late 19th century in terms of how life was organized in the rural South at the time."

When she was a teenager, she spotted a photo of close friend Ruth Carter's older brother, Jimmy, whom she had met but didn't know well.

"When Rosalynn saw a photo of Jimmy on her best friend's wall, she thought he was the most handsome man she'd ever seen in her life," said Kate Anderson Brower, author of the book First Women. "And she asked Ruth if she could take his photo home."

The pair went on their first date in 1945 when she was a student at Georgia Southwestern College and he was attending the U.S. Naval Academy. They married the following year, starting a partnership that would last more than 75 years.

Georgia state Sen. Jimmy Carter hugs his wife, Rosalynn, at his Atlanta campaign headquarters in 1966.
Horace Cort / AP
/
AP
Georgia state Sen. Jimmy Carter hugs his wife, Rosalynn, at his Atlanta campaign headquarters in 1966.

While her husband was in the Navy, Carter managed the household and cared for their three young sons. They later had a daughter, Amy, who spent part of her childhood in the White House.

After Jimmy Carter's father died in 1953, they returned to Plains and took over the family peanut farm business in Sumter County. That business partnership developed into a political one when Jimmy Carter ran for the Georgia state Senate in 1962. He was then elected governor of Georgia in 1970, making Rosalynn Carter the state's first lady.

But when she arrived at the governor's mansion, according to Cade, she "felt overwhelmed" by her new role and by life in the public eye.

"In the beginning it was very stressful, but she quickly adapted," Cade said. "She realized that her faith was going to help her deal with the stresses of this very new and challenging situation."

Carter was an advocate for her husband — and mental health care

When her husband decided to run for president, Carter campaigned across the country for almost two years. Though she was naturally shy and a nervous public speaker, she came alive on the campaign trail and, according to Brower, worked "tirelessly" to introduce the country to her husband, who wasn't well-known outside of Georgia.

"She would look for the tallest antenna in any town and she would head there because that was the TV or radio station," Brower said. "And she would go there with a list of questions she wanted them to ask her."

Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter embraces Rosalynn after receiving the final news of his victory in the 1976 general election.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter embraces Rosalynn after receiving the final news of his victory in the 1976 general election.

After her husband was elected president, Carter ushered in a new era as first lady.

She attended Cabinet meetings and was only the second first lady to testify before Congress. According to Brower, she took a professional approach to the role, exemplified by the fact that she was the first presidential spouse to carry a briefcase to the office on a daily basis.

"I think Rosalynn was a feminist and somebody who wanted to be a true partner to her husband," Brower said. "And she didn't see any reason why she shouldn't be allowed to do that."

First lady Rosalynn Carter and daughter Amy are surrounded by comic book characters gathered at the White House in October 1980 to support President Jimmy Carter's program for energy efficiency.
Schwarz / AP
/
AP
First lady Rosalynn Carter and daughter Amy are surrounded by comic book characters gathered at the White House in October 1980 to support President Jimmy Carter's program for energy efficiency.

In the White House, Carter's top priority was mental health. It was a passion she developed years earlier when she was campaigning across Georgia and heard from people who had family members struggling with mental health.

At the time, there were few community-based mental health services in Georgia, especially for children, and Carter became concerned by the deficiencies in state resources, which included hospitals and institutions that were known for mistreating patients.

As first lady of Georgia, Carter encouraged her husband to establish a governor's commission on mental health, which outlined an influential plan to shift treatment from large institutions to community centers.

"She really began the effort in this country to modernize mental health care," Cade said. "And the mental health care system that we have today in many ways reflects her 50 years of advocacy."

Carter was also an early advocate for reducing the stigma around mental illness and, in speeches, often framed mental health care as "a basic human right." In 1980, President Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act, which provided grants for community mental health clinics, one of many achievements credited, at least in part, to his wife's advocacy in the U.S. and globally.

Life after the White House

After Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid in 1980, the Carters made what they called an "involuntary retirement" back to Plains, a transition that may have been even more difficult for Rosalynn Carter than for her husband.

"She fiercely believed that her husband was the best person to be president of the United States," Cade said. "She really believed that there was still work to be done."

Former first ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and first lady Hillary Clinton stand on stage, on May 11, 1994, during a gala event in their honor at the Botanic Garden Conservatory in Washington.
Robert Giroux / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Former first ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and first lady Hillary Clinton stand on stage, on May 11, 1994, during a gala event in their honor at the Botanic Garden Conservatory in Washington.

Carter told NPR in 1987 that working on their house in Plains helped keep her mind off the disappointing loss.

"We didn't know what we were going to do the rest of our lives. And all of a sudden we had to get the house in shape," she said. "We'd been gone 10 years from home."

Soon after, the former president and first lady founded the Carter Center, which focused on a number of causes — including working to nearly eradicate Guinea worm disease in parts of Africa and Asia and monitoring elections around the world.

President Bill Clinton awarded the Carters with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999, saying the pair had done "more good things for more people in more places than any other couple on the face of the Earth."

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter and her husband, Jimmy, take a break during a housing work project in Haiti in 2011 for victims of the massive Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
Thony Belizaire / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Former first lady Rosalynn Carter and her husband, Jimmy, take a break during a housing work project in Haiti in 2011 for victims of the massive Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.

In 2019, the Carters became the longest-married presidential couple and two years later celebrated their 75th anniversary. They frequently tried new things together and amassed a long list of shared hobbies, like playing tennis, bird-watching, turkey hunting, fly-fishing and skiing.

"The best thing I ever did was marrying Rosa," Jimmy Carter said in 2015.

Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter had four children, 12 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

When asked once how she'd like to be remembered, the former first lady said, "I would like for people to think I took advantage of the opportunities I had and did the best I could."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rosalynn Carter walks President Biden and first lady Jill Biden out after they visited former President Jimmy Carter in April 2021 in Plains, Ga.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images
/
AFP via Getty Images
Rosalynn Carter walks President Biden and first lady Jill Biden out after they visited former President Jimmy Carter in April 2021 in Plains, Ga.