Rosalynn Carter, mental health activist, humanitarian and former first lady, dies at 96

Nov 19, 2023, 1:31 PM | Updated: Nov 30, 2023, 5:25 pm

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter sits a reception to celebrate her and former President Jimmy Cart...

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter sits a reception to celebrate her and former President Jimmy Carter's 75th wedding anniversary in Plains, Georgia, in July 2021. (John Bazemore/Pool/Reuters/File)

(John Bazemore/Pool/Reuters/File)

Originally Published: 19 NOV 23 15:21 ET
Updated: 19 NOV 23 15:23 ET

(CNN) — Rosalynn Carter, who as first lady worked tirelessly on behalf of mental health reform and professionalized the role of the president’s spouse, died Sunday at the age of 96, according to the Carter Center.

Rosalynn Carter passed away peacefully with family by her side at her home in Plains, Georgia, the center said in a statement.

“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, said. “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.”

The Carter Center announced Friday that the former first lady had entered hospice care. She was diagnosed with dementia in May. Her husband began home hospice care in February, following a series of hospital stays.

Jimmy Carter was defeated in a landslide by Ronald Reagan four years after being elected. His single term in the White House included forging a rare peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that continues to this day, but it was also marked by soaring inflation and the Iran hostage crisis. Through it all, Rosalynn was by his side, and often whispering in his ear.

The Carters redefined and revolutionized the post-presidency and, through their joint efforts, they worked on world peace and human rights on behalf of The Carter Center, a nongovernmental Atlanta-based organization founded to “wage peace, fight disease and build hope.”

After leaving the White House, the couple traveled to hot spots around the world, including visits to Cuba, Sudan and North Korea, monitoring elections and working to eradicate Guinea worm disease and other neglected tropical diseases. Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.

“The Carter Center is a shared legacy. She’s been there digging latrines right next to him,” said the Carters’ friend Jill Stuckey, a leader at Maranatha Baptist Church, where both Carters attended and where Jimmy Carter taught Sunday school.

Rosalynn Carter’s most lasting individual legacy will be her efforts to diminish the stigma attached to people with mental illnesses and her fight for parity and access for mental health treatment. She also devoted her time to the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at her alma mater, Georgia Southwestern State University, to help families and professional caregivers living with disabilities and illnesses.

In 1999, then-President Bill Clinton presented both Carters with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. He said they had “done more good things for more people in more places than any other couple on Earth.”

The ‘Steel Magnolia’
Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter shared what many would call a true American story and a genuine lifelong partnership.

In 2015, when the 39th president announced his brain cancer diagnosis, he was asked of which accomplishment he was proudest. He did not hesitate to say that it was marrying Rosalynn: “That’s the pinnacle of my life.”

He shared at another point the secret of his enduring marriage.

“Rosalynn has been the foundation for my entire enjoyment of life. … First of all, it’s best to choose the right woman, which I did. And secondly, we give each other space to do our own things,” he told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “The Lead” in July 2015.

It was likely that Eleanor Rosalynn Smith would cross paths with Jimmy Carter in their small hometown of Plains, Georgia. They grew up at a time when candy cost a nickel and everyone in town knew one another.

“Occasionally someone would open a restaurant, but it would never last very long,” Rosalynn wrote in her memoir, “First Lady from Plains.”

Rosalynn did not grow up with much money. Her mother was a dressmaker and her father was an automobile mechanic who died from cancer when she was 13. She helped raise her younger siblings and considered her father’s death the end of her childhood.

The Carters met through Jimmy’s sister, Ruth, who was Rosalynn’s closest friend. When Rosalynn saw a photo of Carter on Ruth’s bedroom wall she thought, “He was the most handsome man I’d ever seen.” She even asked Ruth if she could take his photograph home with her.

Both devout Southern Baptists, Jimmy and Rosalynn met after a church meeting and soon began dating. They were married not long after his graduation from the Naval Academy when she was 18 and he was 21.

“When we got married, I think I was kin to everybody that Jimmy wasn’t,” Rosalynn wrote in her memoir. “Once we got married, we were kin to everybody in town.”

As the wife of a naval officer, Rosalynn moved frequently and she managed a large household. The Carters had three children in quick succession: John William (“Jack”), the year after their wedding in Norfolk; James Earl (“Chip”) III, less than three years later in Hawaii; and Donnel Jeffrey (“Jeff”) in New London, Connecticut, in 1952. Their only daughter, Amy Lynn, was born in 1967, a year after Carter lost his first bid for Georgia governor.

Jimmy Carter had been accepted to an elite nuclear submarine program but resigned his commission in Schenectady, New York, after his father died so that they could return to Plains in 1953 to look after the family farm. He decided to relocate the family without asking Rosalynn’s opinion. Rosalynn was so furious that she refused to talk to him the entire drive south.

After that, Jimmy Carter said he consulted with his wife on all major decisions.

Later nicknamed the “Steel Magnolia” by the press – a reference she did not mind, saying once in an interview with C-SPAN that “steel is tough and magnolia is southern” –  Rosalynn was naturally shy and her knees would knock together when she had to give a speech in the early days of her husband’s political career in the 1960s.

But by the time he announced his presidential campaign in December 1974, she was a seasoned politician herself.

Describing her transformation from housewife to political partner, Carter aide Stuart Eizenstat said, “This shy woman blossomed in the most wonderful way.”

It was not long before she would number the president’s jokes so that he would not repeat any of them to the same group. She even started taking memory classes to remember faces and names and typed thank you letters to people her husband had met on the campaign trail. She stayed up until the early hours of the morning to work on her speeches.

This is a breaking story and will be updated.

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Rosalynn Carter, mental health activist, humanitarian and former first lady, dies at 96