Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, wife of the 39th president and advocate for mental health care, dies at 96

ABC News

Former first lady Rosalynn Carter, the wife of former President Jimmy Carter and a devoted advocate for mental health, died peacefully at home Sunday, the Carter Center announced. She was 96.

“Rosalynn was my equal partner in everything I ever accomplished,” Jimmy Carter 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.”

She is survived by her children — Jack, Chip, Jeff and Amy; 11 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren, the Carter Center said.

“Besides being a loving mother and extraordinary First Lady, my mother was a great humanitarian in her own right,” Chip Carter said. “Her life of service and compassion was an example for all Americans. She will be sorely missed not only by our family but by the many people who have better mental health care and access to resources for caregiving today.”

Rosalynn Carter entered hospice care at home in November 2023, six months after she was diagnosed with dementia, the Carter Center announced at the time. Her husband had been in hospice care at home since February that same year.

“Mrs. Carter has been the nation’s leading mental health advocate for much of her life. First in the Georgia Governor’s Mansion, then in the White House, and later at The Carter Center, she urged improved access to care and decreased stigma about issues surrounding mental health,” the Carter Center said in a statement after her dementia diagnosis.

Mrs. Carter served as the country’s first lady during her husband’s only term as U.S. president, from 1977 to 1981. The former first lady carved out a profound role at the White House, serving as an envoy abroad and as a political surrogate to her husband. She also raised four children, 12 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

In 1982, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter founded The Carter Center, a nonprofit devoted to advancing human rights and alleviating human suffering, shortly after Jimmy Carter lost his reelection bid to Ronald Reagan.

Early life

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in Plains, Georgia – also the hometown of her future husband – on Aug. 18, 1927, to Wilburn Edgar Smith and Frances Allethea Murray, one of four children, including two brothers and a sister. She was named after Rosa, her maternal grandmother.

Rosalynn’s father died of leukemia when she was 13. As the eldest, she helped her widowed mother keep house and look after her siblings, while also working at a local hairdresser’s shop to earn spending money. Despite the demands on her time, Carter graduated as Plains High School’s valedictorian in 1944.

Throughout her childhood, Rosalynn Smith’s closest friend was Ruth Carter, whose older brother, Jimmy, Rosalynn would eventually marry. The pair corresponded while Jimmy was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD.

“We would continue to write each other letters,” former President Jimmy Carter said in a 2016 interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution celebrating the couple’s 70th anniversary. “Mostly her letters were about all the boys she was going with … I was in the Naval Academy and I was kind of isolated from the outside world.”

Jimmy Carter proposed in December 1945 but Rosalynn turned him down, determined to finish her degree at Georgia Southwestern College. Two months later, she changed her mind and accepted Carter’s proposal during a visit to Annapolis.

They were married on July 7, 1946, in the Plains Methodist Church. That same year, she graduated from college.

A Navy family

For the first seven years of marriage, Jimmy Carter’s career as a Navy engineer and commissioned officer kept the Carters moving from base to base.

The couple’s three oldest children were born in far-flung locations: John William “Jack” Carter in Portsmouth, Virginia; James Earl Carter in Honolulu, Hawaii, three years later; and Donnel Jeffrey Carter, was born in New London, Connecticut. Amy Lynn Carter, the first couple’s only daughter, was born in Plains, Georgia, in 1967.

Jimmy Carter’s naval duties often left Rosalynn Carter to deal with periods of solitude.

“I felt inadequate and very lonely,” she said of those times in an interview with PBS’ “American Experience.” “Sometimes I cried, though I didn’t let Jimmy know. He has no patience with tears, thinking instead that one makes the best of whatever situation with a smile,” she said.

“I learned to be very independent. I could take care of myself and the baby and do things that I never dreamed I would be able to do alone,” Rosalynn added.

From the family farm to the White House

After the death in 1953 of Jimmy Carter’s father, former Georgia House of Representatives lawmaker James Earl Carter Sr., the Carters moved back to Plains, Georgia, to manage the family peanut farm, where Rosalynn helped take control of the finances without drawing a salary.

In 1962, Jimmy Carter followed his father into politics, when he elected to the first of two terms as a Georgia state senator. He was defeated in his 1966 gubernatorial bid, but succeeded four years later to become the state’s 76th governor.

As the first lady of Georgia, Rosalynn Carter took on the duties of managing the operations and gardens of the governor’s mansion. She also became a member of the Governor’s Commission to Improve Services to the Mentally and Emotionally Handicapped, as well as the honorary chair of the Georgia Special Olympics.

Jimmy Carter announced his bid for the presidency in December 1974 as his term as governor of Georgia was ending. Despite being a relative unknown, he defeated incumbent Gerald Ford to win the 1976 presidential election. Not content to play the traditional first lady role, Rosalynn routinely asked her husband about his decision-making process – to the point that he invited her to attend Cabinet meetings, according to PBS’ “American Experience” documentary.

“The first year Jimmy was in office, I became so frustrated. Every night, Jimmy would get off the elevator at the White House and I would say, ‘Why did you do this?’ or ‘Why did you do something?'” she recalled. “And one day he finally said, ‘Why don’t you come to Cabinet meetings? Then you’ll know why we do these things.’ So I started going. It was always on my calendar. And I just listened. I didn’t participate. But I listened. And then I knew why the decisions were made.”

Additionally, she routinely sat in on National Security Council meetings that had traditionally been reserved for only the president and senior staffers.

As first lady, Rosalynn Carter also made trips to the Caribbean, as well as Central and South America, and learned to converse in Spanish. The high-profile meetings placed her front and center in heated discussions about human rights, demilitarization and narcotics.

Rosalynn Carter was also an influential force when her husband brokered the peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat that resulted in the landmark Camp David Accords in 1978, which in turn led to the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty the following year.

During her husband’s reelection campaign in 1980, Rosalynn Carter became the president’s loyal surrogate. While Jimmy Carter was tethered to the White House amid the escalating Iran Hostage Crisis – in which 52 Americans were held hostage in Iran for a total 444 days, beginning Nov. 4, 1979 – the first lady hit the campaign trail, giving speeches at large rallies to fight her husband’s Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan.

Jimmy Carter’s political star faded as the U.S. economy sagged and relations worsened with the Soviet Union. Those facts, as well as the repercussions of the Iran hostage crisis, left him with a 21% approval rating. He won just six states and the District of Columbia in the presidential election, for a total of 49 electoral votes compared to Reagan’s 489. The Carters’ time in the White House was at an end.

National treasure

When Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter returned to private life after leaving White House in 1981, they kept fighting for people in need.

Rosalynn Carter penned a 1984 autobiography, “First Lady from Plains,” and numerous other books about mental health. In 1995, she also co-authored “Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life” with the former president, about their time after leaving the White House.

In 1982, the Carters established the Carter Center to “promote peace and be a champion of human rights,” according to its website. The organization touches lives in 80 countries around the world building houses for the homeless, helping farmers in developing nations, training nurses, and eradicating Guinea worm disease, a debilitating parasitic infection spread by drinking water contaminated with the worm’s larvae. In 1986, the disease affected 3.5 million people per year in 21 African countries, but by 2017, it had been reduced by 99.99%, to just 30 cases, according to the Carter Center.

The Carters also became the highest-profile supporters of Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit devoted to creating affordable housing. They personally helped to build, renovate and repair 4,390 homes in 14 countries, according to the organization, which also called Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter “two of the world’s most distinguished humanitarians.”

Improving mental health and reducing the stigma of mental illness had long been priorities for the former first lady, who chaired the Carter Center’s Mental Health Task Force and each year hosted the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy.

She also teamed up with first lady Michelle Obama to improve treatment for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

“I hope I’ve contributed something to the mental health field,” Rosalynn said in a 2013 interview in Parade magazine. “But I hope people will think—I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities, I tried to take advantage of them.”

In an interview with ABC News in 2021, the former president and first lady reflected on their “extraordinary” marriage, and their years of service.

“We’ve been blessed to be able to travel the world, almost,” Rosalynn Carter said in the interview. “Everything with Jimmy Carter has been an adventure.”

For his part, Jimmy Carter said marrying Rosalynn Carter was the “most important thing in my life.”

“It was happy and joyful and obviously long-lasting,” he said. “Rose did say OK finally, and staying with me all this long has been the most wonderful thing in my life.”

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