Rosalynn Carter Tributes Highlight Her Reach As First Lady And Humanitarian

Pastor Tony Bowden speaks during a repose service in the lobby of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, Pool)
Pastor Tony Bowden speaks during a repose service in the lobby of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, Pool)
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AMERICUS, Ga. (AP) — Hundreds turned out to salute Rosalynn Carter on Monday with the former U.S. first lady and global humanitarian's final journey from her rural hometown to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta as her family began three days of memorials following her death at age 96.

The former president, who is 99 and has spent the past 10 months in home hospice care, plans to attend a memorial church service Tuesday in Atlanta for his partner of more than 77 years, The Carter Center confirmed. Rosalynn Carter died Nov. 19.

The tributes started Monday morning as Rosalynn Carter's casket traveled by motorcade through the Carters' native Sumter County, where well-wishers gathered along the route in their tiny hometown of Plains and attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the college from which she graduated in 1946.

Lyndea Brown drove to the short ceremony at Georgia Southwestern State University from nearby Albany, saying she wanted to salute “a remarkable woman” who attended local cancer benefits and fought for rural health services.

“They were always real hometown people,” Brown said. “We don’t get presidents and first ladies like that anymore, people who have true hometown roots and understand what it’s like to grow corn and peanuts and whatever else and to struggle over health care.”

During the stop at Rosalynn Carter’s alma mater, her four children — Jack, Chip, Jeff and Amy — watched as wreaths of white flowers were placed beside a statue of their mother on the campus where she founded the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving to advocate for millions of unpaid caregivers in American households.

Generations of the Carter family — including the former first lady's grandchildren and great-grandchildren — accompanied the hearse to Atlanta, where members of the public paid respects Monday evening as she lay in repose at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

Two funerals, set for Tuesday in Atlanta and Wednesday in Plains, are for invited guests. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden, longtime friends of the Carters, lead the dignitaries expected to attend the Atlanta service. Rosalynn Carter's burial Wednesday in Plains is private.

The schedule, a product of detailed planning that involved the former first couple, reflects the range of Rosalynn Carter's interests and impact. That includes her advocacy for better mental health treatment and the elevation of caregiving, her role as Jimmy Carter's closest adviser and her status as matriarch of Plains and Maranatha Baptist Church, where she and the former president served in various roles after leaving the White House in 1981.

“All over the world, people are celebrating her life,” said Kim Fuller, the Carters' niece, while teaching a Bible lesson Sunday at Maranatha. “And of course we’re coming into a week now where we’re gonna celebrate even more.”

Some well-wishers began honoring Rosalynn Carter soon after her death, including an uptick in visitors to the Carter Presidential Center campus.

“Mental health is more openly talked about” because of Rosalynn Carter's work to reduce the stigma attached to the conditions, said Brendan Green, a high school guidance counselor who came from Chicago.

“She was a pioneer in that field,” Green said. “What a great legacy.”

Elizabeth Laudig, a registered nurse from Dallas, said she drove 12 hours to be in Georgia this week, starting with the wreath-laying ceremony in Americus. She said Rosalynn Carter’s emphasis on mental health and caregivers was especially inspiring to her as a nurse.

“She just quietly went about the business of trying to make the world a better place,” Laudig said. “You know, she was not a showy or extravagant first lady, but she was humble, you know, kind, hardworking, and got things done for people because she cared about people."

After the motorcade arrived in Atlanta, the family joined staff at the Carter Presidential Center for a short, private service.

The campus near downtown Atlanta includes the library and museum, and The Carter Center. The former first couple founded the center in 1982 to champion democracy, mediate international conflicts and fight disease in the developing world. Their work around the world redefined what former White House occupants can do after ceding political power.

Carter Center CEO Paige Alexander recalled Rosalynn Carter as a tough and fiercely intelligent advocate who in every respect was her husband’s “full and equal partner.”

“Her compassion, her ability to connect, her political savvy was something that helped build the support for all of our programs over the past 40 years,” Alexander told co-workers and the family.

At the public viewing, visitors passed poster boards with quotes by Rosalynn Carter and walked through the museum before being allowed to pay their respects in small groups in front of her casket, which was in the lobby, flanked by members of the Georgia State Patrol Honor Guard.

Teresa Lass, 65, approached the casket with tears in her eyes. She said she was a big admirer of Rosalynn Carter, particularly her work for Habitat for Humanity and her tight bond with Jimmy Carter.

“Rosalynn encouraged him to keep going and not give up,” Lass said.

Genevieve Lewis, 76, took a photo of a quote by Rosalynn Carter equating mental illness with physical disease.

“I admire her for taking away the stigma of mental illness,” Lewis said.

Gary Jackson, a municipal judge in Atlanta, said he met the Carters when Jimmy Carter was governor and again when he volunteered to work on Carter’s presidential campaign. He said he came to admire Rosalynn Carter, wearing a “Carter” pin on his coat that he said was from the campaign.

“She was fiercely determined to help people,” he said.

The largest single service will be held Tuesday at Glenn Memorial Church, a Methodist congregation. The Carters married in 1946 at Plains Methodist Church, where Rosalynn Carter attended growing up. She joined her husband as a Baptist throughout their marriage.

Her final services at Maranatha will reflect their small-town Protestant roots: Church members are invited and will eat a funeral meal with the Carter family the day of the service.

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Associated Press reporters Sudhin Thanawala in Atlanta, Sharon Johnson in Plains, Georgia, and Russ Bynum in Savannah, Georgia, contributed.