Rosalynn Carter, former first lady and tireless humanitarian who advocated for mental health issues, dies at 96

Former U.S. First Lady Rosalynn Carter poses for a portrait in New York City, New York, on Friday, September 23, 2011. Carter was among nearly a dozen current and former first ladies who gathered to explore ways to grow their leadership roles as part of RAND African First Ladies Initiative. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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Rosalynn Carter, the Georgia-bred former first lady and humanitarian who championed mental health care, provided constant political counsel to her husband, former President Jimmy Carter, and modeled graceful longevity for the nation, died Sunday, according to the Carter Center.

She was 96.

She was widely regarded for her political shrewdness, drawing particular praise for her keen electoral instincts, down-to-earth appeal, and work on behalf of the White House, including serving as an envoy to Latin America.

Carter devoted herself to several social causes in the course of her public life, including programs that supported health care resources, human rights, social justice and the needs of elderly people.

“Twenty-five years ago, we did not dream that people might someday be able actually to recover from mental illnesses,” Carter said at a mental health symposium in 2003. “Today it is a very real possibility.”

“For one who has worked on mental health issues as long as I have,” she added, “this is a miraculous development and an answer to my prayers.”

Jimmy Carter, Democratic presidential candidate, and his wife, Rosalynn, share a moment aboard his campaign plane on Oct 24th, 1976.

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In late May 2023, the Carter Center, the couple’s human rights group, announced that she had been diagnosed with dementia. “She continues to live happily at home with her husband, enjoying spring in Plains and visits with loved ones,” the organization said in a statement.

Bess Truman, the wife of President Harry Truman, is the only first lady to have outlived Rosalynn Carter, according to the National First Ladies Library. (Truman died in 1982, at 97.) Jimmy and Rosalynn were the longest-married presidential couple in U.S. history.

The Carters earned admiration for their humanitarian projects after they left the White House. They were closely linked with Habitat for Humanity, considered by the charity to be “tireless advocates, active fundraisers and some of our best hands-on construction volunteers.”

Eleanor Rosalynn Smith was born in Plains, Georgia, on Aug. 18, 1927, the first of four children reared by Allethea Murray Smith and Wilburn Edgar Smith. Rosalynn’s father died when she was 13, and her mother became a dressmaker to provide for her family.

The loss of her father at such a young age forced Rosalynn to assume additional responsibilities alongside her mother. But the family unit managed to stay afloat.

Rosalynn finished high school and enrolled at Georgia Southwestern College. In 1945, following her freshman year, she went on a date with Jimmy Carter, a childhood friend of the family who was home from the U.S. Naval Academy.

Rosalynn Carter during Habitat for Humanity – 2005 Jimmy Carter Work Project – Day 2 at Benton Harbor in Benton Harbor, Michigan, United States. 

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“She’s the girl I want to marry,” Jimmy Carter told his mother after their first outing, according to a biography compiled by the White House Historical Association.

They were married the following year, on July 7, 1946. They relocated to Norfolk, Virginia — Jimmy’s first duty station after graduation. But life as a Navy family meant they had to move frequently.

Their four children were each born in different states: John William in Virginia, James Earl III in Hawaii, Donnel Jeffrey in Connecticut, and Amy Lynn — their only daughter — in Georgia.

Jimmy’s father died in 1953, sending the couple back to Plains to run the family peanut business. Rosalynn soon started working for the enterprise full time, assisting with accounting and other front-office functions.

Jimmy decided to launch a political career in the early 1960s, winning a Georgia state Senate seat in 1962. 

He unsuccessfully sought the governorship in 1966; during that campaign, Rosalynn learned more about the challenges facing people with mental illnesses, as she recounted to Time magazine in 2010.

“The more I thought about it and found out about it, the more I thought it was just a terrible situation with no attention,” she said.

Rosalynn helped lay the foundation for her husband’s winning bid for the Georgia governorship in 1970 and, six years later, advised her husband’s grassroots presidential campaign. Political reporters took notice of her vivacity on the trail. 

“Rosalynn Carter, 49, the candidate’s wife, campaigns with the untiring race-horse type of energy which has typified Carter’s operation for the past 18 months,” U.S. News & World Report wrote in May 1976.

“Not only that: Top aides claim Mrs. Carter is her husband’s most influential political adviser,” the author of the article added.

Rosalynn attracted particular attention for the skillful way she connected with voters, nabbing their support for her husband with down-to-earth warmth. In an unusual move for the era, she traveled across the country on her own, making the case for her husband on her own terms.

A portrait of President Jimmy Carter and his extended family. Left to right: Judy (Mrs. Jack Carter); Jason James Carter; Jack (John William Carter); Annette (Mrs. Jeff Carter); Jeff (Donnel Jeffrey Carter); first lady Rosalynn Carter; daughter Amy Lynn Carter; President Carter; daughter-in law Caron Griffin Carter holding James Earl Carter IV; and son Chip (James Earl Carter III).

Historical | Corbis Historical | Getty Images

“Mrs. Carter, soft-spoken and low-key, prefers face-to-face meetings with voters,” U.S. News & World Report wrote in June 1976. “In her campaigning in 30 states she has scheduled frequent sessions at plant gates and shopping centers.”

Jimmy, running as a political outsider and a symbolic break from the disillusioned post-Watergate era, defeated President Gerald Ford in 1976. The press quickly understood that Rosalynn would not be content to remain on the sidelines in Washington.

“Rosalynn Carter will not be simply an East Wing ornament, a First Lady content to redecorate the White House or preside over soirees,” Newsweek’s Jane Whitmore wrote in January 1977. 

“There’s so much you can do,” Rosalynn told Whitmore, “and there are things I want to do. I want to work on mental health and the problems of the elderly — independently, on my own.”

“Jimmy’s always talked things over with me, like when he was choosing the Vice President or the Cabinet,” she added. “I’ve always been involved in the meetings. I always tell him what I think even if I disagree — and I’ll continue to do that.”

Rosalynn established herself as an active part of her husband’s administration.

She joined Cabinet meetings, attended key briefings, spoke on behalf of the White House at ceremonial gatherings, served as an honorary member on a mental health commission, and traveled to Latin American nations as the president’s personal envoy.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency itself was judged to be a mixed bag, and many Americans — including some Democrats — believed that he was an ineffective commander-in-chief, particularly as the Iranian hostage crisis dominated headlines in late 1979.

Rosalynn worked tirelessly in the bid to re-elect her husband to a second term in 1980 — a campaign Jimmy lost to Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood star and governor of California who represented the ascendant conservative movement.

She was said to have been gutted by her husband’s loss and the apparent repudiation of his presidency by so many voters. But she made it clear to political reporters that she was trying to look to the future.

“I think you accept it,” Rosalynn was quoted as saying in a November 1980 article by the longtime UPI reporter Helen Thomas. “When you’ve done all you possibly can do, that’s all you can do. It was out of our hands.”

She pledged to “speak out” on the issues close to her heart, adding: “You go from one phase of your life to the next phase of life. … I think it’s going to be exciting.”

The next phase of Rosalynn Carter’s life proved to be fruitful. She wrote several books, including the 1984 memoir “First Lady From Plains” as well as three books about mental health.

The Carters remained committed to bettering the lives of people around the world, winning several awards and honors along the way. 

In 1982, they founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit human rights organization forged in partnership with Emory University in Atlanta. Seven years later, she established the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving at Georgia Southwestern State University.

She held annual symposia on mental health at the Carter Center for more than three decades, uniting experts and advocates for discussions about mental illness, family coping, financing care services, supporting research and reducing stigma.

The two were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in August 1999. Clinton, speaking at the Carter Center, praised the couple for their humanitarian accomplishments.

“Rarely do we honor two people who have devoted themselves so effectively to advancing freedom in all those ways,” Clinton said. “Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter have done more good things for more people in more places than any other couple on the face of the Earth.”

In recent years, the Carters appeared publicly less frequently. But during the 2020 presidential election, they recorded a video tribute to Joe Biden that aired during the televised portion of the Democratic National Convention.

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