Rosalynn Carter, who worked tirelessly for mental health reform as first lady and professionalized the role of the presidential spouse, died Sunday at age 96, according to the Carter Center.
Rosalynn Carter died peacefully at her home in Plains, Georgia, with her family by her side, the center said in a statement.
“Rosalyn was my equal partner in everything I accomplished,” said her husband, former President Jimmy Carter. “She gave me wise guidance and encouragement when I needed it. As long as Rosalyn was alive, I always knew I was loved and supported.”
The Carter Center announced Friday that the former first lady has entered hospice care. In May, she was diagnosed with dementia. Her husband started home hospice care in February after a series of hospitalizations.
Four years after his election, Jimmy Carter was defeated in a landslide by Ronald Reagan. His single term in the White House included a rare peace deal between Israel and Egypt that stands today, but it was also marked by soaring inflation and the Iran hostage crisis. Throughout it all, Rosaleen was by his side, often whispering in his ear.
The Carters redefined and revolutionized the post-presidency, and through their combined efforts they represented the Carter Center’s commitment to world peace and human rights. The Carter Center is an Atlanta-based non-governmental organization founded to “promote peace, fight disease and build hope.”
Since leaving the White House, the couple has traveled to hot spots around the world, including visiting Cuba, Sudan and North Korea, monitoring elections and working to eradicate dracunculiasis and other neglected tropical diseases. Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
“The Carter Center was a shared legacy. She was digging toilets next to him all the time,” said Jill Stuckey, a friend of Carter’s who attended Maranatha Baptist Church Leader, Carter, and Carter attended the church, and Jimmy Carter taught Sunday school there.
Rosalynn Carter’s most lasting personal legacy will be her efforts to reduce the stigma of people with mental illness and her fight for equality and access to mental health treatment. She is also committed to the Rosalynn Carter Institute of Nursing at her alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University, helping families and professional caregivers living with disabilities and illnesses.
In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton awarded the Carters the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for American citizens. He said they “did more good, in more places, for more people than any other couple on the planet.”
Rosalyn and Jimmy Carter shared what many described as a true American story and a true lifelong partnership.
In 2015, when the 39th president announced that he had brain cancer, he was asked what accomplishment he was most proud of. He said without hesitation that it was marrying Rosalind: “That was the pinnacle of my life.”
Another time he shared his secret to a lasting marriage.
“Rosalyn is the foundation of my entire enjoyment of life. … First, it’s best to choose the right woman, which is what I do. Second, we give each other space to do our own thing,” he told CNN’s “The Lead” told Jake Tapper on the show.
Eleanor Rosalyn Smith likely met Jimmy Carter in their hometown of Plains, Georgia. They grew up in a time when candy cost five cents and everyone in town knew everyone.
“Occasionally someone would open a restaurant, but it never lasted long,” Rosalyn wrote in her memoir, “The First Lady from the Plains.”
Rosalyn didn’t have much money growing up. Her mother, a seamstress, and her father, an auto mechanic, died of cancer when she was 13. She helped raise her younger siblings and believed her father’s death marked the end of her childhood.
The Carters met through Jimmy’s sister, Ruth, Rosalyn’s closest friend. When Rosalyn saw Carter’s photo hanging on Ruth’s bedroom wall, she thought, “He is the most handsome man I have ever seen.” She even asked Ruth if she could take a photo of him home.
Jimmy and Rosalyn, both devout Southern Baptists, met after a church service and soon began dating. They married shortly after he graduated from the Naval Academy, when she was 18 and he was 21.
“When we married, I thought I was kin to everyone but not Jimmy,” Rosalyn wrote in her memoir. “When we got married, we were related to everyone in town.”
As the wife of a naval officer, Rosalyn moved frequently and managed a large family. The Carters soon had three children: John William (“Jack”), the year after their marriage in Norfolk; and James Earl (“Chip”) III, who married less than three years later. Hawaii; 1952, Donald J. Jeffrey (“Jeff”) in New London, Connecticut. Their only daughter, Amy Lynn, was born in 1967, one year after Carter’s first failed bid for governor of Georgia.
Jimmy Carter was accepted into an elite nuclear submarine program, but after his father’s death, he resigned from his position in Schenectady, New York so that they could return to Plains in 1953 Plains tends the family farm. He decided to move without consulting Rosalind. Rosalind was so angry that she refused to speak to him all the way south.
Jimmy Carter has since said he consults with his wife on all major decisions.
Later nicknamed “Steel Magnolia” by the media – a title she didn’t mind, once saying in an interview with C-SPAN, “Steel is tough, Mulan is the South” – Rosalyn was shy by nature, and when she spoke, her The knees will knock together. Early in her husband’s political career in the 1960s, she had to give a speech.
But by the time he announced his candidacy for president in December 1974, she was already a seasoned politician herself.
“This shy woman blossomed in the most wonderful way,” Carter aide Stuart Eisenstaedt said, describing her transformation from housewife to political partner.
It didn’t take long for her to number the president’s jokes so he wouldn’t repeat them in the same group. She even began taking memory classes to memorize faces and names and write thank-you notes to people her husband met on the campaign trail. She stayed up until the early hours preparing her speech.
This is a major story and will be updated.